Boundary Condition: Outline

BOUNDARY CONDITION

A Novel Outline
by
Wil McCarthy

Disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. 'nuff said? Perhaps not; The politics are imaginary. The science is made up. No similarity between the characters and actual persons is intended or should be inferred. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the author, the publisher, the Catholic church, the Chinese government, the National Weather Service, or anyone else. Some readers may find certain elements of this story offensive; others may find them funny or thought-provoking. No higher meaning is intended or should be inferred — my intention here is simply to entertain.

High-Concept Pitch:

When miracles are predicted by government scientists and the Pope's space shuttle crashes in a vehemently Godless China, it's up to the National Weather Service to bring him home alive. Or die trying!

Background:

Circa 2012, the world was rocked by four back-to-back scientific discoveries.
Discovery One: free will exists, in the form of small, statistically improbable events inside the human brain. In quantum-mechanical terms, these are known as "decoherences," and each one creates a "decoherence hypercone" — a microscopic volume of time and space where all the quantum uncertainty has been used up, and no further decoherence events — i.e., no surprises — are possible. Any person's decoherence rate can be measured with a high-resolution MRI scan, and it was quickly determined that some people naturally have more than others, as measured by their "DQ" or decoherence quotient.

Some geographic areas also seem to promote free will slightly, while others suppress it. And for some unknown reason, free will also increases measurably with altitude (possibly because there are fewer people exercising it up there — the stepping-on-the-channel effect familiar to CB radio users). There is some speculation that if all the conditions are just right, high-DQ individuals might be capable of triggering small decoherence events outside their own bodies, sensing and influencing the outside world in subtle, spooky, ESP-like ways.

Most animals also exhibit decoherence in their brains, though at much lower rates than the dullest humans.

Discovery Two: for even the highest-DQ individuals, free will waxes and wanes in semi-predictable ways, on a 7-day cycle, rising to a peak on Saturday nights and then crashing to a low on early Sunday mornings. That's in the U.S.; since the peak occurs simultaneously throughout the world, in Europe it falls on Saturday afternoon, in the Middle East it's late on Saturday morning, and in Asia it's a flatter peak in the wee hours between Friday and Saturday.
It also follows a shallower 28-day cycle, peaking during the full moon and bottoming shortly after the new moon. However, the exact FWI or "Free Will Index" at any given time is a chaotic phenomenon, like weather. The National Weather Service is therefore charged with forecasting it. Soon afterward, the Service stations its highest-DQ researchers in a trio of orbiting space stations, where the most sensitive measurements can be made, using their own MRI-scanned brains as detectors.
Creepily, people feel exactly the same whether they have free will or not. However, they don't behave the same, since crime rates, stock markets, pregnancies, etc. are intimately (though not simplistically) tied to it. The leading interpretation is that free will allows a person to step outside his or her mechanical/animal nature for brief moments, and genuinely choose a course of action. Often times, though, the choices are of trifling importance. Human behavior is harder to predict at these times, but is not fundamentally different.

Discovery Three: low FWI values are caused by the appearance of large cascades of oversized decoherence hypercones in the space around the Earth. Inside these regions, further decoherence is impossible, and free will does not exist. It is the frequency of these events that drives the cyclic nature of FWI "weather." Notably, these cones are far beyond the scale that human beings can generate, and are associated with statistically improbable but physically deterministic events in both the human world and the larger cosmos.
The most notable of these was the observed deflection of a small asteroid on collision course with the Moon. The asteroid was struck by a series of smaller meteors, and when the paths of these bodies were analyzed, they were found to have been consistent and tamper-free for several decades at least. The entire history of the universe, it seems, was designed to force the occurrence of this strange, improbable event.
Since the laws of physics are apparently obeyed, such events are technically known as "boundary conditions," or points where the normal quantum uncertainty of nature is constrained to particular exact values. But in the popular vernacular, they are simply referred to as "miracles."

Discovery Four: The boundary conditions imposed on the universe — or at least on the space around Earth — are of two distinct flavors, and often appear to be working at cross-purposes. The obvious implication is that two powerful entities are, for unknown reasons, struggling to direct the course of human events. If so, they may exist outside of time as we know it. I.e., the boundary conditions may have been imposed on the universe at the moment of its creation! Or maybe not; as with everything in quantum mechanics, the results can be interpreted in a variety of ways — some mystical, others mechanical, and still others "transactional" or governed by new conservation laws. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Main Characters:

"Saint" Jiminy Gomez, aka "Jim." With an anglo mother and a Spanish-American father, he has the fifth-highest decoherece quotient ever measured. Born in a U.S. army base in Korea and raised in Nebraska, he briefly flew tankers for the Air Force before losing his flight status to an ear problem and transferring into meteorology. Now an 8-year veteran of the National Weather Service, he is finishing up a 6-month rotation on board a hastily constructed NWS space station. Staunchly scientific in his outlook, he refuses to be drawn into debates on the theological implications of his work. "Saint" is an ironic nickname given to him by his coworkers, because of his high DQ. He is decidedly NOT a catholic.

The Jesuits are the Catholic church's most inquisitive and scientifically minded order, and traditionally the custodians of antithetical knowledge during periods of intolerance, and His Holiness Pope Dave The First is history's only Jesuit pope, only American pope, and also the first pope to be selected largely on scientific grounds. Born David Wayne Stassi, His Holiness speaks seven languages fluently, is computer literate, and holds doctorates in both divinity and neuropsychology, with a crossover specialty in disorders of the temporal lobe — the so-called "God Module." He's also been an extremely charismatic figure within the Church and on TV — the "Alton Brown of Catholicism" — combining good looks, a humble, down-to-earth demeanor, and a comedian's gift for pithy analogies. As a bishop he was widely appreciated for making it "cool to be Catholic" again. He's also known for his outreach to other religions, and to the scientific community.

Interestingly, all this has little to do with his pontification; he simply has the highest DQ ever recorded, and while no one is exactly sure what this means, it struck a chord with the college of cardinals just when the old pope lay dying. They picked Dave for the job with more than a bit of trepidation — he could make Vatican II seem like a minor tweak to the system! — but this looks to be a time of religious upheaval no matter whom they pick. They've basically gone with their gut, or (in their own terms) followed divine inspiration.

Rachel Gomez is Jiminy's daughter and a major source of existential angst. At the age of 5 she suffered a tumor so severe that the left half of her brain had to be removed. She's now 8 years old and remarkably recovered; the normally subservient right half of her brain has risen to the occasion and assumed nearly all the functions she had lost. But she's not quite the same little girl, and Jiminy secretly and shamefully thinks of her as Rachel 2, and considers himself complicit in the murder of Rachel 1. This gives him several sins to confess later, and provides further context for discussions about identity and free will.

Carla Smith Gomez is a middle manager in a Fortune 500 telecom company called LeverLink — unofficially "Ma LeverLink" as in "Ma Bell," or simply "MalevoLink." She's also Jiminy's soon-to-be ex wife. There are still warm feelings there, but the trauma of Rachel's medical problems has driven a wedge between them that nothing seems able to repair. Carla is also terribly beautiful, and Jiminy often wonders whether the night he met her was one of free will or of mechanistic animal desire. She has also confessed to infidelity, and though she's sorry, it's unknown to either party whether she was formally "responsible" for these incidents or not.

Other Background: There is an ongoing rivalry between the ultrasafe, ultrapolitical NASA and the down-and-dirty NWS, which "has an actual job to do."

Plot Summary:

Ch 1: Daily operations in space station Dewey Park. Relief shuttle due to arrive — Jiminy is being rotated out — but meanwhile life goes on. News reports in the background: President in Louisiana, Pope on a secret trip (possibly mideast?), and Chinese premier speaks out against animal-derived fuel oils, citing biosafety concerns (prions, etc.), and against prayer and meditation, which "rob us of the very freedom of our souls." Shuttle does arrive, and out float a couple of guys in poofy black suits, looking like a cross between playing-card jacks, Russian-trained space tourists, and no-nonsense Secret Servicemen. And with them is… the Pope.

Ch 2: Initial shock, but Jiminy has readings to take. Pope observes. It's going to be a high-free-will couple of days — unusual for midweek. There's a bit of infodump, and thence opens the debate about the religious implications of quantum decoherence. Prayer and meditation are the act of surrendering your free will so that God can act through you? Either by introducing information into your brain or by simply deploying large decoherence cones through the space you occupy. I.e., the exercise of free will creates a volume of space in which larger decoherences can't operate. Earth is thus a kind of battleground, with outside forces struggling for "air time" against noisy humanity? Prayer — the surrendering of free will — clears the quantum airwaves so miracles can take place?

Pope Dave observes that if this is true, the most pious thing a person can do is pray or meditate on a full-moon Saturday night. Jiminy points out that by that logic, prayer would equally empower Satan to act through you, or through the space you occupy. It also implies that God is not omnipotent at all, which implies that the whole shebang could be just another natural phenomenon in this big, strange cosmos. (You know, like those "God is Gravity" type arguments.)

Ch 3: Jiminy has to go outside in a space suit to retrieve a radiation dosimeter. Invites His Holiness to come with, over the strenuous objections of the Swiss Guard. But there's only one suit, and the Pope Dave really wants to go. They decompress, tether up, look out at the Earth and stars, and talk some more about God and Heisenberg. The nature of decoherence cones. The presence of two entities working to cross-purposes. Possible long-term objectives of the struggle? Is it Good vs. Evil, or is it something more like the expansion and compression forces that keep a burning star in balance?

Ch 4: Jiminy will be riding back to Earth with the pontiff and his men. He calls his daughter and ex-wife to discuss visitation plans. No privacy; His Holiness can't help overhearing, and observing Jiminy's pain. He advises surrender: to God's will, to his own shortcomings, to the principles of marriage. At this point, Jiminy is simply irritated. The shuttle is prepped for departure.

Ch 5: Departure. Normal procedures for several pages, but then suddenly the vehicle is struck by an energy weapon of some sort, and begins to break up. They've been shot down! In a fiery and dramatic scene, Jiminy ends up in the escape pod with His Holiness, while the guards, pilot, copilot and station engineer burn up.

Ch 6: The pod splashes down in the ocean off a small island somewhere in the East China Sea. Grieving for the fallen. The pope's satellite phone battery has run down and can't be used to call for help. They row to shore in a rubber dinghy, speculating about who shot down the shuttle and why. The Pope's security briefing did include mention of antisatellite weapons that have gone missing from USSR and could be in the hands of terrorists, rogue governments, or organized crime. Why, Jiminy wonders. This surprises His Holiness, who says God and the church have always had enemies (not always the same ones). Science has enemies as well, and by visiting a NWS station the Holy See expected to stir up ire from every direction. "Just not so soon."

Ch 7: They arrive in a tiny village where no one speaks English. Irony: Pope Dave speaks seven languages, but whatever language these people are speaking (Mandarin? Taiwanese? Korean?), he doesn't recognize it. Still, they're taken to a phone, from which they can't figure out how to place a call. In broken English, a fisherman offers them a ride to the mainland.
"No money," says Pope Dave apologetically. "No… won? No yen? No yuan?"
"No yuan," the man agrees.
Noting that the yuan is the currency of China, they accept the ride.

Ch 8: Arriving in their space coveralls, with no formal ID, at a dock in a city called Lianjiang, the two Americans go in search of an authority figure. But this is a fishermens' wharf, not a port of entry; there are police but only a handful of customs officials, and except for going over them with drug-sniffing dogs, no one seems interested in talking to them at all. Irritated, they walk away in search of an English-speaking government official.

Finding themselves in a marketplace, they try again to place a phone call but are baffled by the foreign system and the non-English-speaking operators. They also look for a way to recharge Pope Dave's satellite phone, but the outlets are incompatible and so, presumably, is the voltage. Irony: surrounded by 21st century mesh networks, GPS, global wireless Internet, etc., they're stymied by a simple language barrier.

At a booth in the bazaar, they encounter a strange device: a little fan inside an evacuated glass bulb. It looks very much like a radiometer — a popular childen's science toy which revolves when exposed to light or heat — but instead of being black on one side and white on the other, the blades of the fan are painted with a faintly glowing, wine-red material which Jiminy identifies as "a gallium arsenide quantum well," i.e., a decoherence-resistant material.

"Miracle-proof paint?" asks Dave, and despite his apparent good cheer, Jim has the sense that His Holiness is shuddering inwardly. But he confirms it: "Not a paint, but yeah. Miracle-proof." With mingled amusement and shock, he realizes the device is a miracleometer, which revolves in response to decoherence events. He jokes that he — indeed, the entire quantum physics arm of the NWS — may soon be out of a job. He still has no money, but offers to trade his wristwatch for the device. The vendor accepts, and the transaction is made.

Just then, a group of black-suited, sunglass-wearing men arrive. They could just as easily be mafiosi as secret police, but they have two uniformed police in tow. "Looks like we're saved," says Jiminy. "Or busted," says Dave.

Ch 9: The Men in Black scan Jiminy and His Holiness with biometric scanners. "Pope? You Pope?" one of them asks in a very poor accent. "Yes," they confirm. They're taken to the roof of a nearby hospital, and shortly thereafter, a helicopter lands to take them away. To their relief, the chopper crew includes a fluent English speaker, who says they are being taken "someplace safe." Only later do they realize how creepy this really sounds. Safe from what?

Ch 10: Chopper takes them to an airport, where they board a small jet for a 4-hour journey, followed by a four-hour bus ride, offering much occasion for shell-shocked discussion. They have, after all, narrowly escaped an act of terrorism and witnessed five fiery murders. The interpreter, Bing "please-call-me-Cam" Khamrayev, is outwardly sympathetic, but vaguely creepy somehow. He's also not ethnically Han Chinese, but looks almost Pakistani. He notes that "extremists" have lately gotten ahold of microwave technology — EMP stunners and maser antisatellite weapons — mainly via former Soviet republics like Kyrgystan and Kazakstan. But he confides that the Han Chinese would like to blame Tibetan separatists, who are lately suspected of abandoning their longtime campaign of passive resistance in an effort to throw off their Chinese masters.

"Their luck is too good," he notes with wonder. "Miraculous, even. Whatever they're smoking down there, I want some."

There is some talk about the effects of FWI on crime. It's not a simple relationship; during high-free-will days, the overall crime rate is about the same, but the kinds of crimes are measurably different, tending more toward the white-collar, the creative, the bizarre. More girls than boys are conceived at these times as well, which of course causes Chinese civilians to set their breeding schedules around the FWI in hopes of having a boy. Cam notes that Chinese astrology has much in common with FWI forecasting; here the two are melding into a single discipline, just as acupuncture and herbalism have blended with modern medicine.

Finally, the bus arrives in a secure facility. Jim has suspected for some reason that they were going to the spaceport at Jiuquan, but they're much too far inland for that. From his watch and the angle of the sun, Jim deduces they're at the extreme Western edge of China. "Kargilik, Uighuristan," Cam tells them when they finally think to ask. "Or according to the Han: Yecheng, in the Autonomous Region of Sinkiang,"

Cam continues debriefing them, but when they're led into a miracle-proof room, attended by grim-faced men in miracle-proof helmets, they realize they're actually prisoners. Does anyone from the outside world even know they're here? Do the Chinese suspect some collusion between the Vatican and the rebel Tibetans? Is there some other ethnic struggle going on here? If Dave and Jiminy understand their location correctly, this is a troubled, multi-ethnic region, nestled between such disputed lands as Tibet, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and a number of former Soviet republics. Have they become pawns in someone's insurgency?

"Our friend Cam is probably an Uighur," Dave notes uneasily. "Muslim. He believes in our God, where the Han do not. Does that make them our friends?"

Ch 11: Discussion w/government functionaries. Bad sign: they're all minor officials, no mucky mucks, and they're an ethnic mishmash as well, making it hard to tell whose side they're on. One thing is clear, though: these people are very concerned about a regional governor named Zhuge.

It turns out the Chinese are wildly incensed by the notion that their free will is subject to control by outside forces. The central government has begun a program — the Zhuge Protocol — to use up all excess free will in pointless mental calisthenics. This literally denies "God" (or some other cosmic foreigner) the use of Chinese territory or thoughtspace; it's the exact opposite of prayer. Compliance is voluntary at the moment, but the government is working on sensors to detect prayer and meditation states and arrest/deport the offenders. (Where will they go? The Chinese don't know, and don't care. Canada, maybe.)

Are these people the friends or the foes of that plan? Why are they holding Pope Dave? A breakthrough in understanding seems imminent… But suddenly, Triad footsoldiers — the actual Chinese Mafia this time — arrive with cool high-tech gadgets to bust the two out. They're refused a phone call. "We not your concierge. We paid to deliver you."

Ch 12: Out of the frying pan… Jiminy and Dave are taken in secret to a remote monastery compound of the Chinese Catholic church, which (like the Church of England) believes most of the same stuff but was separated from the Vatican for political reasons.

Great apologies are offered for their kidnapping and rough treatment by "elements of the Sinkiang government." Unfortunately, other groups are now involved as well. It's embarrassing for the Pope to waltz into Lianjiang undetected, and even more embarrassing that he could be spirited away without the central government's knowledge or consent. Worst of all, 20 hours have gone by since the escape pod splashed down, and absolutely no one in authority has called either the Vatican or the Italian or American governments. That's embarrassing. The local Archbishop, whose millions-strong flock sees and hears all, suspects that officials on either side of the scandal might actually rub out Dave and Jiminy to keep the whole mess quiet.

The archbishop also apologizes for using the Mafia to effect a rescue, but the phones here are mysteriously dead — wired and wireless alike — so no calls to the actual authorities are possible. The archbishop's monks (and a few anomalous nuns) inspect Dave's satellite phone with interest, and say they'll try to locate a charger for it, but they don't seem to expect it will actually work.
Jiminy and Dave are taken to lavish guest quarters — one room, since they mistake Jiminy for one of the Swiss Guard.

Ch 13: Jiminy is of the opinion that the monastery phone line has been cut and its airwaves jammed, and that it's an inside job. Someone here has already betrayed them to Governor Zhuge, "for a million yuan, or a trillion yuan, or whatever passes for real money around here."
Dave is inclined to see the good in everyone, but his momma didn't raise any dummies, and he didn't rise to the papacy by ignoring the dark side of human nature. "This is a mess," he admits. "One rotten monk and we're back where we started. If Jesus couldn't trust his own apostles, putting our own faith in these strangers does seem a bit of a stretch."
"Whatever's about no happen here," Jiminy says, "We don't want to be around for it." Fortunately, security at the monastery is lax, and the two are able to stuff food, water and bedding into some pillowcases and slip away into the night. Fortunately, their flight coveralls are good protection in any weather, and Jiminy (being a meteorologist) is a geography expert and was also able to steal a GPS receiver.

Ch 14: Complaints about lack of sleep, "jet lag" (the NWS station was on Omaha time), and the cold mountain air. Fortunately it's summertime! The plan is sketchy at best: staying off the main roads, they will make their way 90 miles west over jagged mountains, to reach an American army outpost in the extreme northeast of Afghanistan. Or a phone, or something! Right away Jiminy can see that water will be a serious problem, but Pope Dave surprises him with a smattering of wilderness survival knowledge. "Like most kids our age, I used to be a boy scout."

Ch 15: Sunrise: smoke rising from monastery & high-tech helicopters flying all around. Dave & Jiminy hide repeatedly, realizing they are being looked for with almost-certainly-sinister intention. Surely someone is on their side in this tussle, but with no ability to distinguish friend from foe they have no choice but to continue fleeing. They push westward and uphill.

Ch 16: Days pass, in a haze of thirst and hunger and unhealthy cold. At night, the NWS stations (and others) are sometimes visible as bright lights moving quickly across the sky. There's a bit of talk about the flight suits — technological marvels without which the two would probably have died of exposure by now.

Still, Jiminy wonders aloud why he couldn't be marooned with the Dali Lama instead, who presumably knows his way around the high mountains. What to eat? Where to find water? (They've been getting it from plastic baggies tied around plants; this works but tastes awful.)

Dave talks about Lent, and the suffering of Jesus and all the martyrs. This ignites a heated argument: Jiminy talks about the protocols of science as the only true path to knowledge, and Dave talks about how science is only just discovering the principles theologians have known about for thousands of years. Jiminy points out that estrogen levels begin to rise in males around age 35 — right when many are suddenly discovering religion. Many men suddenly discover they're gay around the same age!

Jiminy talks about moral relativism and Dave talks about sin — the kind you feel in your gut. The worst hubris of science, he warns, is its presumption that religious people are stupid. Would a tone-deaf man say the same thing about music lovers? In the heat of the moment Dave pulls the miracleometer out of his pillowcase and shouts, "God is everywhere, dumbass! Here's the fucking detector."

Needless to say, Jiminy is shocked to be cussed at by the Pope himself. Later, Dave apologizes and prays for forgiveness. Jiminy chalks it up to low blood sugar and offers his own apologies. Looking at the motionless fan blades he notes, "We could use a miracle about now."

Ch 17: The two find an isolated Kevlar tent on the bare mountainside. Assuming at first that it's abandoned, they go inside to warm up and sleep. There are signs of very recent occupation, though, including solar battery chargers which Jiminy uses to recharge the GPS, though he can't seem to manage it with the satellite phone. A few hours later a disheveled, vaguely cyberpunky young woman appears, waking them with yells and pushes. They try to talk to her, and eventually she calms down and tells them about herself. They don't understand a word of it, but even so they get the sense that she has run away from an abusive man of some sort, a husband or stepfather or teacher. Things are in disarray right now, but she'll go back home at some point — probably a few days, judging from the temporary-quarters appearance of the hovel — and he won't be there anymore. Also, she doesn't like Governor Zhuge. Good sign?

Jiminy and Dave converse briefly about the wonders of nonverbal communication, and then, after a light but very welcome supper, Jiminy returns the favor by telling the woman — her name is "Wala" — his own life story. He tells her about his daughter, his ex-wife, his hunger and fear… She listens with interest, and with a slightly bitchy sort of amusement. Eventually, Jiminy notices that Dave has stepped out to look for firewood or something. Hungrily, Jiminy and Wala undress each other and make love.

Ch 18: Later, Dave and Jiminy are walking through the wilderness again. Wala isn't with them; Jiminy extended the invitation and she turned him down. "I've been used," he notes with mixed feelings — mostly embarrassment. "She's probably married. I'm her twinkie on the side."
"There's nothing to be ashamed of," Dave tries to assure him.
Jim isn't buying it. "Nothing to be ashamed of? It's like a nightmare: you're naked in school. You're in a car with no steering wheel. You're committing adultery — graphic adultery — with a stranger in a hut somewhere, and the Pope himself walks in!"
"Yes, well. Underneath the immortal soul we're still animals. We get cold, we get lonely, we get horny. You think the Pope doesn't notice beauty? You think a celibate priest never pops a stiffie? There were popes who had mistresses, Jim. I'm not condoning that, but you kind of have to suspect that God understands."
"Well, then, maybe I should go back and finish," Jiminy quips.
But Dave says, "Ha ha. Don't push your luck."

Ch 19: After the two have spent another day alone in the wilderness, Jim is mucking with wires and lodestones, trying in vain to coax a response out of the dead GPS receiver, or Dave's satellite phone. There's a sudden urgency to it, because they're seeing signs that their trail has been picked up again. The echo of unseen choppers, the distant barking of dogs. This could be a rescue party, but by now Zhuge and his people could have made up any story they liked, and mustered legitimate government forces to their own illegitimate ends. "As far as they're concerned, we could be Tibetan terrorists," Jiminy mourns. "Whoever those guys are, I don't think they'll be real interested in capturing us alive."

Still, the border is close, now. They persevere. The dialogue, of course, continues, focusing now on the Zhuge Protocol and its implications. Pope Dave talks more about the virtues of surrender, i.e., working with the forces around you, rather than against them.
"How do we apply that here?" Jiminy wearily wants to know.
"Still working on it," Dave admits.

Ch 20: A force of uniformed, Chinese-looking men (possibly but not necessarily the Chinese army) closes in, just as the (suspected) border comes into view. Soon Jiminy and Dave are holed up in a cave and are unequivocally under fire: rifles and mortars. Clearly, someone wants to leave no witnesses in this bizarre case. Soon they'll be nothing but rumors and footnotes in the conspiracy newsletters — what really happened to Pope Dave?

"What do we do now?" Jiminy despairs. "We pray," the Pope answers, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world.

Ch 21: There is some talk about death and dying. Dave obviously expects to wake up in a literal heaven, surrounded by friends and family, saints and martyrs, angels and even God himself. Jiminy sees no reason to believe this, and points out that even the Bible doesn't promise it, not really. Dave remains unshakeable in his overall faith, that there is a God and that He is in some way transmitting knowledge and instructions to human beings.

However, in the Jesuit way he allows the possibility that the details have suffered in transmission, like a long, long game of telephone. If saints are people with high free will (and thus the ability to perform miracles?), and prophets are people with unusually sensitive religious receptors (built-in miracleometers, coupled to the tremendous pattern-seeking algorithms of the human mind?), then surely both must occur in equal numbers outside the Judeo-Christian world. Maybe all religions have a piece of the truth? The Chinese astrologers and numerologists, the Tibetan ascetics, the Hindu and African and Amerind polytheists? Maybe the rigors of science can someday unite them all?

Says Dave, "It's hubris to assume our lives are indispensable. Or to assume we know the mind of God. But you know as well as I do, there are outside forces of some kind, gods or aliens or whatever, who are capable of intervening on our behalf."

Says Jim, "If you really believe these things, and if your followers really believe you have a pipeline to the truth, then your church is due for some serious upheavals in doctrine. You're going to live a really controversial life. If you live at all."

Dave says a prayer for both their souls. Then he encourages Jiminy himself to pray, and since Jiminy is able to justify the action (if tenuously) on scientific grounds, he reluctantly agrees to join in. He has never prayed before, and finds the sensation novel and interesting. He really does feel a faint tickle of divinity somewhere inside himself, and while he knows it's just the activity of the "god module" in his temporal lobe, he can believe for the first time that this might conceivably be an organ for receiving information, rather than simply fabricating it. In any case, the sensation is pleasant, like beer.

Suddenly, the miracleometer begins to stir. "Pray harder," suggests Jiminy, but Dave shakes his head. "Pray softer. Clear your mind. Let God use it." "Or Satan? Aliens? The spirit of some long-dead Buddha?" For whatever reason, this seems to work; the miracleometer speeds up, and speeds up some more, its vanes glowing red like coals in a fireplace. And suddenly, Jiminy knows exactly what to do.

He leads Dave out of the overhang where they've been holed up. Keeping their heads low, they dodge and weave between the rocks until they come to a sign, marked "At Afghanistan, no Admittance" in five different languages. Dave seems to get the idea as well; together, the two of them uproot the sign. With bullets thumping into the snow all around them, and voices blaring incomprehensibly over a bullhorn or two, and the sound of choppers rapidly approaching, they throw the sign down and plop their butts on top of it.

"We need a push," notes His Holiness. "Allow me," says Jiminy. Moments later, they're rocketing down the steep mountainside at breakneck speed, screaming with laughter. Their ears pop; they cover a mile of ground in well under a minute. "It's a miracle!" says Jiminy. "It's physics!" counters Dave. Then they hit a bump. Jiminy flies through the air, hits hard, and blacks out.

Ch 22: Jim awakens beside a campfire, with the light of sunset glowing on the jagged horizon. "Not sunset," says Dave. "Sunrise. You've been sleeping like a baby."
"It's cold."
"The sun is coming."
"I'm tired, Dave. I'm not sure how much further I can go."
Dave laughs. "Sit tight. The Marine Corps is on its way."
Jiminy digests that. "How would you know?"
"Satellite phone," says Dave, holding it up for inspection.
"It's dead. It's been dead all along. Look, even the battery is smashed."
"I know. But it rang about twenty minutes ago, and I answered it. And the news was good."
"What news? From whom?"
Dave laughs. "Actually, I'd rather not say. Some things even I have trouble believing, and I've… made a sort of nondisclosure pact."
And anything Jiminy might have said to that is drowned in the sudden roar of choppers. It's the Americans this time — three helicopters. One of them lands, and Dave & Jiminy are whisked aboard.
"Pope Dave!" shouts a marine. "Jiminy Benjamin Gomez! Are you guys alone?"
To which the Pope replies, "None of us is ever alone, my son. Have you got some coffee?"

Epilogue:

On the tarmac of an airfield in Omaha, Jiminy scoops up his daughter, Rachel, and hugs her fiercely.
"So, what's the pope like?" she asks.
"Dave? Good guy."
"Did you get his autograph?"
"No, but I got some good advice."
Jiminy rediscovers all over again just how much he loves this Rachel 2, and wonders if Rachel 1's death might even have been necessary, to fulfill some higher plan. Probably not, but it's a seductive thought. After some conversation, Rachel is sent ahead to "find the car," so that Jiminy and his ex, Carla, can have a few minutes alone.
"So. Back from the dead," she notes.
"Miss me?" he asks.
It begins to rain. They discuss the paperwork of divorce, and Jiminy admits that he is ready to forgive her. Indeed, to apologize for his cold rages, and all the other stuff that drove her away.
"Just like that? Of your own free will?" she asks, dubiously.
"Just like that," he agrees. "Scissors cut paper. Love wraps grief."
"Hmm. Well. Do I get a proper explanation?"
"You do. You will. But the long version's going to take a while."
"Summarize it," she says, in her Fortune 500 way. "What's the short version?"
"Isn't it obvious? It's a miracle," he says, laughing, as though it's the most natural thing in the world.

THE END