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Chapter 6

The year 2000. A new millennium. He always wondered whether he would live to see it. There had been some uncertain moments in the 1990s. Even a few back in the ’80s. But here he was, safe and sound, a woollen Christmas jumper on his back and a loving, caring family in his midst.

“F15 141, this is Red Leader. We are about to make contact, report.”

“Red 4, standing by…”

“Red 2, standing by…”

“Red 12, standing by…”

“Red 9, standing by…”

Carter scratched at the underarm of the jumper. The newly-issued USAF flight overalls were a complete piss-take. There was simply no give in the shoulder at all, making it feel ridiculously cramped in the F-15 cockpit and even sometimes making the landings tricky. He ought to find the man who designed them and give him a piece of his mind. Still, he had nothing to worry about. This was where he belonged; up in the sky, with his brothers-in-arms. Katy hadn’t liked it. He had rowed with her the night before, and the night before that, in fact. It looked pretty likely that divorce number two could be on its way. He personally couldn’t give a flying fuck.

“Hah,” Carter grunted, at his own joke.

“Red 9, what was that, over?”

“What are we doing up here, Red Leader? I’m sure there’s a celebration of some kind that we’re missing…”

“Fuckin’ ay,” said Red 4

“Give it a rest, Carter. Red 2, Red 12; you’re going to have to give me some cover here. Lay down the suppressing fire until Captain Smartass can dump the payload.”

“Copy, Red Leader.”

For reasons Carter never fathomed, the nickname ‘Captain Smartass’ had stung him a bit. Usually, he saw this as an indication in others that the hurled insult had some truth behind it. But it was difficult for him to judge himself. Maybe he was. Maybe he was the ‘flying fuck’ too. No-one was going to say it to his face, were they? He always thought of himself as practical and fair-minded, at least when considering his intellect and views. But then, who was he to say? Was there an opinion that could be more biased than his of himself? What did other people see in him then, that he didn’t? Captain Smartass?

Red Leader, a guy called Alan Johnson, was not an unkind person. He had always been pleasant enough to fly with, and they got on well during simulations and training. But when he was in the air, he was totally different; a man in his element, to the extent that his words and actions became machine-like. Of course, squadron leader was an important and difficult role to fill out here, one which allowed for very little compromise, but, in later years, when Carter had been Red Leader, he made sure to behave differently to the way Johnson had. If he received stick, he had given some straight back. If he received backchat, he would himself go behind the perpetrator and snigger with the other pilots. It was a dog-eat-dog world, dog-fighting. Therefore, it always helped when the top dog retained his sense of humour.

At the time, Carter and the rest of the squadron had returned to base to rest, before hitting the town. Those had been the days when he was really alive; young, gregarious, as committed to the next drinking-game as he was to the next mission. They had stumbled upon a smoky place in the back streets of a local town, parked up the Cadillac, which had belonged to Johnson, and bundled inside. It had been a hard week’s flying. They had been recalled twice, spent hours upon end in the air circling, relaying messages of readiness and current status, but worst of all, they had missed being with their families for the celebration of the passing millennium. They had been hastily discharged from their base in the Nevada desert, given food and drink, promised bonuses for their time and effort. And all for weapons-testing. Many of the pilots often asked Carter why they did this on American soil now, sacrificing their own earth instead of that of Japan and Vietnam for the sake of tests. Sometimes, this was put forward in a sarcastic sense, condemning the so-called atrocities of the Second World War and Nam, which Carter understood. It worried him, however, when people thought that this was a serious issue; that American soil was sacrificed for testing rather than that of inferior nations. This usually riled him and he would usually respond:

“Great, why don’t we just bomb Mexico then; they’re our bitch after all…”

What on earth was wrong with testing in Nevada? The place was surveyed in the aftermath by bio-chemical technicians and engineers, and any adverse effects of the bombing or suchlike were removed, and any local structures or even plants that were damaged by weapons testing were duly replaced by the American Government. Were any single person to be inconvenienced by the after-effects, they could claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation if they had a brain cell or two, and why was that an issue? We are the richest nation on the planet, aren’t we? And besides, the Nevada desert was just dust and dunes. Where better to test air-to-surface weapons, rather than on some foreign township who will be blown to smithereens before they know what’s hit them? We’ve got plenty of soil here, and the means to clean it up. That was why the argument had always puzzled Carter.

New Year’s Day had been difficult to miss. Not that he had missed Katy all that much while up in the sky, but much of the drinking and festivity had been put on hold, and it was something that he had always enjoyed. It felt good to drink to the passing of an old year; memories, good times, shit times, new friends, old friends, and most importantly of all, unpredictability ahead. It was the only time of the year where Carter found that he could put his life in perspective and evaluate what he had accomplished. And this, the end of a millennium, that was something to celebrate.

They didn’t leave the bar that night, Carter and the squadron. Red Leader, Johnson, kept on buying drinks, and even USAF pilots, paid through the nose for perhaps five months work a year, were not about to turn down free drinks. Johnson had turned out to be a bit of a lightweight, as Carter found was the case with many pilots. Alcohol so often threw up that element of Greek Tragedy; the fatal flaw that tainted your valiant, American fighter pilot, with all his medals, his uniform, and his rank, and turned him into a jittering shape slumped over the bar. Fortunately, Johnson had forgotten to put his wallet away, and the drinks continued to be on the house, at least for the rest of them. They cadged a deck of cards from the barman, and dealt, flurried, flushed and stolen the night away. It was Carter’s kind of party; four fighter pilots, all in his squadron, his brothers-in-arms, in a smoky bar God knows where, good beer and a deck of fifty-two. To him, it was the perfect way to spend the turning of the millennium, and they had joined in raucously with the general countdown on The Jay Leno Show on the television above the bar, after which the barman had announced that booze was on the house for the rest of the night. The perfect end, it seemed, to a perfect night. Even drawing lots to nominate two individuals to carry Johnson into the bathroom became a laugh.

Carter sometimes found that he didn’t have too many good memories; moments that he found special and secluded enough to consider being worth remembering at some point in the future. The moment the world entered the twenty-first century was certainly one of them. A few others that came to mind were his first flight, his first steps on the moon, and the moment he realised he was to be selected for a Mars Mission. Oddly though, Operation Angel Light had not struck him as much of an enlightenment. The dossier revealed that there would be little in the way of actual excitement. NASA were clearly not willing to risk trying anything new protocol-wise with this particular flight, in case it all went catastrophically wrong, and they had to start again, build a new prototype craft capable of reaching Jupiter, find new stand-out individuals to man it, and of course, alter whatever had caused the problems that had killed twelve astronauts for the sake of curiosity. ‘Alteration’ was a big word at NASA. Any adjustments to the mission could take six months to a year. They could also take ten years. Therefore, Carter hadn’t been all that bothered about the mission before him, at least, not in the same way as he was before heading to Mars. NASA had covered their asses too well. Everything was the same. It was boring.

The target was the only thing that interested Carter. In fact, that was an understatement. It was what dominated his thoughts throughout the training, the take-off, disembarking from the shuttle and the two months that had so far passed on the Royal Ascender. In truth, they were heading into the unknown, and that didn’t just include the tear. They were heading to a place no humans had ever even considered venturing. It was totally unobserved from anything other than a distant perspective. Such was the size of Jupiter, they would be the first to look down on it, even from many thousands of miles away. There were specially designed telescopes and telephoto-lenses to shoot pictures of the giant. NASA always threw in objectives on the side. It saved training more astronauts.

Some described this as the greatest undertaking in human history; Carter disagreed. However, it was likely to be the greatest achievement in his history, and that at least meant something. What that something was exactly would continue to elude Carter. What was this? Something to tell the grandchildren? He barely knew his own children, let alone any grandchildren. Something for the benefit of humanity? No-one knew what was happening at that spot 400 million miles away. It could do nothing. It could kill them. They could trigger a time-space collapse that would destroy the universe for all NASA and the Russians knew. And that wasn’t even a joke. The only possible benefit Carter could see was that it would be something good to put on his CV. Oh, and he would get to see Jupiter. He always wondered what that biggest of cheeses looked like. But frankly, it was all a load of… rubbish. Only it wasn’t. He couldn’t explain.

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