They were calling it Operation Angel Light. It was one of those projects that appears in all the science magazines, overblown by overlong words in order to enrapture the nerd contingent of America. It would get a two-page spread, with lots of exciting and colourful pictures, surrounded by small captions that would describe the various objectives that such an undertaking would hope to complete, and diagrams to display the kind of vehicle that would be required. There may even be a couple of hints as to who the lucky few would be; the ones chosen by the world’s finest Space Organisations to partake in mankind’s most daring exploit to date. The flight to the tear.
Why the mission came into being remained unclear. Okay, so this heavenly-body had suddenly appeared within thousands of miles, soon to be more as Jupiter drifted off on its eternal orbit, from the largest planet in the solar system, and both were likely to benefit from closer inspection. Indeed, Jupiter had been a target of NASA’s since the successes of the Mars missions, if you could judge them so. But the tear, the tear was different. No-one knew what could happen if humans were to venture into it’s depths, unobserved and unpredictable as they were. New information about the tear was recorded daily, from the various probes and monitoring satellites that had been sent to study the phenomenon. And this was all before you got to the fact that this location was further from Earth than anyone had ever been. But the interest was such that when an undertaking like this was suggested in a NASA board-meeting somewhere, there had been no turning back. The technology was there. They were going to go to this thing. And nothing was going to stop them.
This attitude would truly have been motivated by curiosity. To what extent, though, was questionable. In NASA’s defence, they were careful to make the Primary Objectives of the mission the observation and recording of the tear, after organic life-forms were successfully transported through the light. Readings from NASA Control were said to be ‘unclear,’ and closer, more accurate readings were required to determine just what had happened to those brave and industrious little bacilli.
However, there was always a sense that, since the discovery of the tear, the belief in the Star of David had become stronger. Preachers began to spring up in various streets across America, talking of forgotten prophecies that were activated by the appearance of such a beacon. It was all God’s doing. And though many heads of state were religious, they were not about to be dictated to and manipulated by street-preachers. This was a scientific age, and it was somewhere decided unanimously that this tear had to be a scientific phenomenon, even if the scientists couldn’t fully explain it. When the heads of state had asked Samuel Harvey Jr. to do something about it, he had nodded, and put together a mission statement.
Whether his eagerness to agree to this was partially a reaction to various scandals involving high-ranking NASA officials and burlesque dancers that had recently appeared in tabloids, or the polarising of the various Space Organisations across the world in recent years is up for debate. What was clear was that Operation Angel Light was to be a worldwide effort. There would be nowhere on the planet where correspondence with the mission would be denied. Even in Korea, even the Middle-Eastern conflict zones, would have some access to the progress of this undertaking. And so it followed that the crew-members should be of different nationalities, representing everything that the Planet Earth had to offer in terms of talent, endurance and strength. An American, a Russian, a Frenchman, an Englishman, a German and an Australian; to cover the major Space Organisations. And representatives for the rest of Europe, for the East, for Africa and South America, for Japan. And an intense series of screening and training simulations would decide who were the very best individuals in these chosen locations, and then prepare them for the intense flight that was to come.
It had been late afternoon when Carter got the call, initially from the local postal service, which stated that they were holding a package for him, that was of ‘high importance.’ He stamped down on his rising hopes at first. It would be some big-wig requesting he personally deliver some package to some swanky destination. It would be nothing significant or interesting. After all, it was a bit too late now. He was getting too old; his career at NASA was more or less over. That said, when he was last at the Nevada Test Centre, he had been assessed by a group of technicians, who had done a physical and tested his blood and urine. He had thought nothing of it at the time; this being a regular occurrence at NASA, but it was true that the tests had come out of the blue, and had not been justified by his bosses, though he had since dismissed any qualms. He had been told nothing, now that he came to think about it. Could it have been that they were preparing him for something?
He had been at his cottage in Montana, having arrived there from his ranch the previous day. As always, he had left Valdez in charge, and instructed him to check the mail every day for letters addressed to him that were of such ‘importance.’ Stuff was constantly sent to the wrong address, especially by the government, and it annoyed the hell out of him. In fairness, his summer movements were difficult to track. He would usually spend the majority of the four-month break on the ranch; living in his house there, doing the administrative duties that such a property demanded, giving Valdez and others their orders, and discussing business with companies who could potentially buy into their produce. But this summer, he had taken an executive decision that he was getting too old for that sort of thing, and that Valdez would be better suited to running the whole shebang. Times had most certainly changed for his ranch-hand, now into his forties, and it showed. He was entirely confident in his ability to run the ranch, and his progress reports became shorter and less-informative. Carter barely read them now. He knew that his property was in safe hands. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of finally meeting Della, his daughter, and her subsequent agreement to spend her summers with him on the ranch, that had settled Valdez, made him the commanding and powerful figure that he had become. He had his own second-in-command now; a guy called Henry, but would still see to the North Field himself, every year. There would come a time when, Carter decided, he would leave the ranch to Valdez when he officially retired, sign it over to the man properly and leave everything to him. Hell, he had no family, and very few other friends, who he could entrust the place to. And Valdez practically was the ranch. He lived and breathed it.
The spotty official in the Baybrook post office had stared at Carter, as if a dangerous spider had just crawled out of his nostril when he entered. He had tried a friendly smile, but the guy’s expression didn’t change. So he had set his jaw in stone.
“David Carter, I live up on Tenth. You got an important package for me?”
“Yes, Mr. Carter. We’re holding it in the back-room, in a contained space specially designated for such packages. Will you step this way please?”
Carter stepped, and then hesitated.
“That’s Colonel Carter, by the way.” He had received the title only a year before to the day, and was still getting used to it, like a host gets used to a parasite, clinging awkwardly where it is not needed.
“Yes, sir, of course. Please, this way…”
Carter had followed the official through to the back room and signed on the dotted line, showing his driver’s license for identification. Talk about your ‘specially designated containment zone,’ the back-room consisted of, broadly, a large coffee table, quite a lot of coffee stains, some battered black filing cabinets and a few wall-posters. The package was on top of one of the cabinets, not three inches from a discarded Oreo cookie. The official motioned, as if afraid to touch the package in case it exploded or swallowed him. Carter sidled past the table and picked up the envelope. It was large and vaguely bulky, like a catalogue with some rectangular block on top of it, in brown, sealed cardboard. He checked the postmark on the seal, nodded and stowed the package in the rucksack on his back. It would be unwise to open it here.
“Thank you, sir, for holding this for me. On what date did it arrive, please?”
“Not two days ago, Mr. Carter. We were to keep it separate from the other packages, according to the courier who delivered it; some exec-looking card with big shades on his face. He said it was of extreme importance that the package was not tampered with in any way, and that it was kept in a secure environment.”
“I see,” said Carter, looking around the coffee-stained back-room, “Well, thanks again. I did mention the Colonel thing, didn’t I?”
“Yes, sir. Of course. ’Course you did. Colonel. Sir.”
“Yeah, okay… that’ll do.”
When he got back that afternoon, Carter discovered that the bulky object in the package was a satellite phone. NASA had done this before. When they wanted his services, they would often send some gizmo for him to contact them with. Hell, he had a draw full of the things in the attic somewhere. There was a GPS on the phone, and Carter switched it on, as he always did. This would confirm to the NSA people that the phone had been activated, by him, in a property location deemed secure and registered to Col. D. Carter. This would be forwarded to NASA, who could then contact him. On such conditions was secretive government work based.
He had read through the document in about half an hour. As with all the mission files he was sent over the years, the Operation Angel Light edition was thick with smallprint and verbal red-tape. It was imperative that he understood everything clearly, and in the same way as the other selected crew members. But at the end of the day, protocol was protocol, and would therefore always be protocol, that is, the same. He knew the rules. It was almost like being back at school, in that way. Even though this was such a great undertaking, it was slightly amusing that NASA wrapped the mission in such a familiar garnish of restriction and continuity. It only started to get interesting as he approached the end of the document. The last three sides included the attached mission objectives, the crew dossier, and a smaller green sheet, which had been stapled to his personnel file. On the back of it were printed the words: US GOVERNMENT: SPECIAL ORDER 2091.
Carter personally found that it made for far more interesting reading, and enhanced his potential role on the mission to something more befitting an officer of his calibre. He had to admit though, that a lot of the language used in the green document left a lot to his interpretation. Words such as ‘oversee’ and ‘mediate’ were seemingly stripped of their actual meanings, or at least, introduced to imply something far more innocent and less horrific. It was all rather typical of NASA. They made an eleven-head death warrant sound like a shopping list.
The thought did occur to Carter, as he slid the pages back into the cardboard envelope and dropped it on the sideboard, that he may have misread the instructions, misinterpreted what it was telling him he must do. Later, in the dark hours as sleep evaded him, he had checked it again, and again, until morning finally peeped under the window shutters, which were half-closed. A small bird was chirping in the garden from an elevated position. There was the sound of a bicycle chain as a local heaved their way up the hill to Eleventh. And the Special Order still meant the same thing, no matter how he read it. Carter rubbed his eyes and lay back on his mattress to doze, the envelope slipping from his fingers onto the carpet. He hadn’t read it again, as he had committed the green document to memory. Even the little ten-digit codes at the bottom, even the signature under the printed text.
He did not have to report to Nevada for another week, and so he tried to enjoy the rest of that summer. He would lounge in his garden, feeling the baking sun and the pollen and the fleeting breezes, sunshades protecting his eyes, a straw sun-hat his skin. When he wasn’t exercising or getting groceries, he would watch television, which Carter found he could only do for short periods of time. He also reread Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain’d, as he got the feeling that he was going to need them where he was going.