She squinted into the bright sun flooding her eyes. "Yes?" Then she saw the uniform, and swayed, clutching the door. "Oh, my God! It's Eric, isn't it?"
"May we come in?"
Jenny stepped back, almost tripping as she did so. "Of course. Just tell me! Is Eric alive?"
"Ma'am, we're very sorry..."
Jenny's face crumpled, and they took her elbows and guided her into the kitchen, letting her collapse in the nearest chair. The woman who had spoken sat across from her, while her partner methodically searched the kitchen and began making coffee. The woman took Jenny's hand.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean that the way it's usually used. We're very sorry to have to tell you this, but we don't know if Captain Savanger is alive or not."
"Don't know? What do you mean, you don't know? How can you not know?"
"Please, ma'am, let me explain what we do know."
Jenny kept her eyes fixed on the other woman's face, as intent as any predator about to pounce on it's first meal in thirty hours. The woman fidgeted with her fingers.
"Ma'am, how much do you know of the project Captain Savanger is working with?"
"We... we've discussed it, as much as Eric was allowed to. He... he wanted me to have some say before he made up his mind..."
"How much of what he explained to you were you able to understand?"
"I don't know. It was dangerous, I understood that, but important and exciting. I told him... God help me, I told him he should go ahead, since he obviously wanted to so badly."
"Mrs. Savanger, were you aware the New Frontier Project involved a new, untested type of drive based upon the principles of quantum physics?"
"Yes, I... I guess so."
"Did you understand what that meant?"
"That no one really knew what was going to happen."
The uniformed woman coughed. "Well, yes, that's true, of course. Are you familiar with the idea of Schrodinger's Cat?"
"Eric said something... I'm not sure."
The woman sighed. "I'm not a quantum physicist, Mrs. Savanger, so I don't understand it very well myself, but they assure me this is how it works. If you put a cat in a sealed box, with two valves, one that will admit oxygen and one that will admit cyanide gas, and control those valves with a switch based upon the behaviour of a single quantum particle..." She broke off.
"Please, tell me what's happening!"
"I'm sorry. I'm very sure any of the physicists would say my explanation is all wrong. But the important part is this. If you were to perform such an experiment with a cat, there are several possible outcomes. If you look inside the box, there is a fifty percent chance you will find the cat alive, and a fifty percent chance you'll find her dead. No one knows which until you look." She looked firmly at Jenny. "But, there is a third possibility. If you didn't look inside, you would actually have two boxes co-existing simultaneously. Inside one would be a living cat, and inside the other would be exactly the same cat, but dead instead of alive."
"Eric talked about this. He said it was a 'thought experiment', I think."
"No, Mrs. Savanger, this isn't a hypothetical situation at all. Until someone looked, you would actually have two separate boxes, co-existing, each with the same cat inside. It doesn't make sense, I know."
"But that's crazy!"
"It does sound like it, doesn't it, ma'am?"
Jenny looked at her flatly. "You're serious! All right, what does this cat have to do with Eric?" She picked up the coffee that had been sitting, ignored, in front of her the past few minutes, and sipped from it.
"You see, ma'am, the, ah, craft he was testing uses quantum principles in it's operation. While he was on a voyage, there was a malfunction. We know that much, we even know roughly what went wrong."
Jenny gripped the cup so hard between her fingers that it cracked. "Damn it!"
"Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am. I don't mean to keep you in suspense. I'm trying to explain."
Jenny just sat and waited, until she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"Sorry, ma'am. The problem is that we can't determine the exact effects the malfunction would have had. At the moment, there are two ships, each with Captain Savanger in the cockpit."
Jenny put her hand to her mouth and nibbled her knuckles. "Why didn't... Oh!" Her mouth opened wide in horror, and she raised her palm and made pushing motions, as if physically shoving something away, out of her sight.
"Exactly, ma'am. Once we look, there is just as much chance of finding Captain Savanger dead as of finding him alive. We're afraid to look. I was sent, ma'am, to inquire what your wishes were in the matter."
Jenny stared at her in horror. "Don't ask me that! I can't bear not knowing, but if finding out could kill him, I can't bear that either..." She rose and began pacing. "No, I don't want you to look. Not at all, not ever. As long as he's alive somewhere, I can bear that..."
"Are you sure, ma'am?"
"Of course I'm not sure! If I tell you to go ahead and look, he might come back to me. But you might find his body, too."
Three weeks later, when they finally settled Jenny in a nice place with plenty of nurses to care for her, she was still hovering between one possibility and another.
The Commander of the New Frontier Project stood at the window of his office that afternoon, while an envoy from the capitol watched him. "Now listen here, Commander, you've got to come to some decision on this Savanger business."
"Not me! Tell them they'll have to decide. Oh, but first, be sure they understand the principle of Schrodinger's Cat, so they'll know what we're dealing with."
The special legislative assistant shrank back in his seat. "What do we do then, sir?"
"That's the question, isn't it? If only we knew the answer!"