"So," I said, "Why exactly do we use the word `sinful' to describe things which are basically pleasant and good?"
Lisa managed to keep a straight expression on her face as she added, "Yes, like ice cream?" She stroked Leo, who had recently graduated to solid food, but was now purring blissfully in her lap.
The Father smiled and rocked back in his chair. "Heh heh... that's one I don't get asked very often. And probably for the better too. I'm no lexicographer."
"You mean that's not one of your multiple talents?" Lisa grinned.
Father Darwin's smile grew broader. He has a reputation for excelling in all sorts of scientific fields, and I wouldn't have been surprised if formal lexicography was one of them. But he dismissed the thought and offered his own personal opinion on the matter. "Hardly," he said, "But I would guess it stems from that strange ingrained western ethic which says that whatever feels good must be bad for you."
"Heh, yeah, and vice versa," I said.
"Exactly," the Father pointed a finger at me, "You see, even though we joke about these sorts of things a lot of the time, the common impression of God's word as telling us to be puritanical in order to achieve grace pervades much of our thinking. It's a shame more people don't realise the falseness of that."
Lisa swallowed some hot chocolate from her mug. "So, you're saying that..."
She was interrupted by the coffeehouse door flying open and Leo leaping from her lap for cover.
"I can't believe that, man!" Ron's Jamaican accent gets stronger when he's angry, and he was certainly inflecting his vowels when he stormed in the door.
"Are you going to say the same thing to the people dying of cancer in their hospital beds?!" Natasha barged in after him. "What about Susan?!" A wave of shock went through the rest of the people in Amethyst. I was glad Simon wasn't there.
Ron whirled and faced Natasha, standing defiantly just inside the door. "Hey!" he stabbed a pointed finger at her, "Don't you try to guilt-trip me, man!"
By this time Galileo had dashed over to stand between the two combatants. "Please, my friends!" he said, holding his palms up in a double halting gesture. "Remember where you are."
Ron glared at him for a fraction of a second, although to the rest of us it felt like about an hour. Then his expression softened and he hung his head slightly. "Sorry, Galileo. We should have left it outside."
"Yes," echoed Natasha, "Sorry." She looked around the staring faces sheepishly. "Where's Mrs Shelley?"
"Upstairs, writing," Galileo answered, "I'll convey the apologies, although she might not even have heard you. Something to drink?"
The Amethyst Coffeehouse sees its fair share of arguments. It is, after all, normally populated with a fairly diverse group of people. It would be more surprising if there wasn't an occasional disagreement among its patrons. Galileo usually does a good job of mediating when things get slightly out of hand, and I've never seen things go so far as to come to blows. I guess Galileo has a lot of experience with conflicting viewpoints.
Mrs Shelley has never stated anything about arguments in Amethyst, but we all treat the House as having a sort of unwritten rule about them - that we drop them at the door. Like most rules, it gets bent occasionally, but thankfully it hasn't yet snapped irreparably.
Ron nodded and let a faint smile cross his face. "Orange mocha."
"I'll have a cappuccino," said Natasha, "Your special blend. Thanks."
"Ah," breathed Galileo, walking back to the counter and his jars of fresh coffee beans, "A woman with taste."
"Naturally," she agreed pleasantly, "Except in friends." She swatted Ron's ear as she walked past him into the room.
Ron snorted and followed her, saying good-naturedly to Galileo, "Make sure you put plenty of sugar in that. Sweeten her up a bit."
They seated themselves between Lisa and Father Darwin, poking each other in the sides until they actually sat down.
"Good evening," said Lisa. "You sure know how to make an entrance."
"Hi," Natasha greeted us, "We thought we'd wake you up a bit. Warm drinks, cosy chairs - we wouldn't want you not to notice when the lives of the party get here."
"It sounded a little intense," said Father Darwin. "If you don't mind my asking, and if it'll be safe to do so, what was the subject?"
"Aah," began Ron distastefully, but with no trace of malice, "The evening papers are running headlines on the new nuclear reactor. Looks like it's going ahead."
"And he doesn't think it's worth it," concluded Natasha.
We'd all heard about the proposed replacement for the aging research reactor on the edge of town. The existing reactor served for scientific purposes, and to supply radio-isotopes for medical use to local hospitals. It was beginning to show its age, however, and the Government wanted to fund a new reactor to take its place. Certain environmental groups and citizens who lived near the proposed new site had been saying that the decommissioning of the old reactor should be seen as a step on the road to a nuclear-free city.
"Well," I said, putting my tea down on the coffee table, "It's a very complex decision. There are a lot of factors to weigh up."
"And you think it should be built?" Lisa questioned Natasha.
"Of course," she nodded emphatically. "The isotopes used in radio-medicine have very short half-lives. It's impractical to import them from any great distance. And there are certainly patients here who need them."
"But what about the danger?" Ron interjected. "I know I don't want another nuclear reactor floating around if we have the chance to get rid of the one we have now."
"Reactors are safe these days," said Natasha. "You have more chance of dying of cancer because of the lack of radio-pharmaceuticals than there is of a nuclear accident."
"You're not just risking me, though. What about the millions of other people in the city and the surrounding miles of countryside? If something goes wrong, we're all dead."
"But nothing can go wrong..."
"What about Chernobyl, then? Do you think they would have built that if they didn't think it was going to be safe too?"
"Hey, I'm from Moscow, remember. It wouldn't surprise me if they did!" Natasha turned the slowly simmering discussion down a notch with a smile and a brief chuckle.
I decided to speak up and try to cool things down a little further. "She has a point, Ron. The Chernobyl rectors were a very outdated design. If something went wrong, it was basically meltdown city. But nowadays reactors are built to be failsafe. If anything fails to operate properly, the system automatically shuts down and the nuclear reactions stop. You could plant a bomb on one and have nothing worse happen than a shutdown leaving you with an inert reactor core which can't even be started up again. A meltdown is basically impossible."
"Okay, technically maybe," said Lisa, joining the discussion, "but Ron has a point too. Are we really willing to take the chance that nothing unforseen will occur?"
"Thank you," Ron smiled.
"All right," said Natasha, "So we have a miniscule chance of something basically impossible happening. But we've all been living with that for the past twenty-odd years anyway, with the old reactor. We're going to build an even safer one, and you want to stop it, denying sick people access to medicine they desperately need. I'm afraid I can't understand why you prefer to do that."
"I never said I wanted those people to lose their treatment," said Ron. "We can always send them somewhere where they have the isotopes they need."
"That would cost a fortune! And it'd be an ongoing cost, much greater than initial outlay and running costs of a reactor."
"Are you saying money is more important than people's lives?"
"Of course not. The reactor will also be much more convenient for the patients who need it. You could very easily lose some of them because of the transport time, you know."
"As opposed to millions if the unthinkable happens?" Ron shifted in his chair. "Look, this is nuclear energy we're talking about. It's the biggest destructive force we have available. It's messing with major voodoo. Father," he looked at Darwin, "tell her what comes of dealing with things people weren't meant to touch."
"I'm sorry, my son," answered the Father, "but the Lord tells us that evil lives in the hearts of men. It certainly doesn't reside in the tools we may use to commit it. What can be used for evil can also be used for good, in the right hands. And the Lord did evolve in us a brain capable of learning and applying our knowledge. To spurn that on principle is to misinterpret His word."
Natasha smiled triumphantly, and Ron frowned.
"But that is not to say that using knowledge is always right, either," Father Darwin continued, "As in all things, a balance must be sought. We must consider our actions for all their implications. And in many cases it is not at all clear which path is better. Nay, in many cases the choices, vexing though they may be, are essentially the same in the end.
"In this case, it is clear we all desire the best for as many people as possible. Yet we still disagree. Who can say that the other is wrong? I think maybe you already know the answer."
Natasha and Ron looked at each other for several seconds, with the rest of us sitting silently. Then Ron glanced slightly to his left, over Natasha's shoulder.
He smiled broadly. "I think our coffees are ready." He stood and offered an arm to Natasha.
The serious expression on her face melted as she stood and linked arms with him. They sidestepped Natasha's chair and walked over to the counter, where Galileo had just placed two steaming hot cups of his wonderful coffee.