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Is it the latest in spy technology, a meteor, a UFO, or a new star? No one-not even government leaders, military commanders, astronomers, or other scientists-can provide any real answers regarding the mysterious light that has suddenly appeared in the eastern sky. When a diverse group of scholars and scientists meets in Israel to investigate the phenomenon, they are soon caught in a web of political and spiritual intrigue, terrorist bombings, and sniper attacks. As uncertainty about the phenomenon causes ...
Is it the latest in spy technology, a meteor, a UFO, or a new star? No one-not even government leaders, military commanders, astronomers, or other scientists-can provide any real answers regarding the mysterious light that has suddenly appeared in the eastern sky. When a diverse group of scholars and scientists meets in Israel to investigate the phenomenon, they are soon caught in a web of political and spiritual intrigue, terrorist bombings, and sniper attacks. As uncertainty about the phenomenon causes worldwide panic, the pressure is turned up to find a scientific answer to the mystery of the light. But the team is determined to convince the world of its findings-that the light is the return of the Star of Bethlehem, which signals Christ's Second Coming.
Irritated by the phone call, which had broken his chain of thought, Professor Daniel Thompson turned away from the op-ed piece he was writing for the New York Times. He anchored the cell phone under his chin and reached over to push aside the shutters that blocked his view of the clear, starry western Massachusetts sky.
In the last few days he'd been so overwhelmed with grading final papers and his own writing projects that he'd cut off all contact with the outside world. No radio. No TV. No regular phone calls. Leftovers in the fridge. Lousy way to spend May in western Mass. But sometimes, there's no choice.
Professor Skidmore Kirkland had gotten through to him because he was one of the few who had Dan's cell number. If the caller had been anyone other than Skiddy, Dan would have cut him off immediately. He didn't have time right now for interruptions of any type.
But Dan knew he had to humor Skiddy—and not just because he was a prominent Harvard psychologist. The man had incredible connections with the money people, the kind who fund research projects. Dan had benefited often from those grants, and he wasn't about to jeopardize future opportunities.
"So what am I looking for?" Dan asked.
"Use your eyes. Look to the east."
Dan looked—and dropped his cell phone.
He could hear Skiddy yelling in the distance as it rolled around on the floor. But he couldn't take his eyes off the object that was glowing up there in the sky. It was larger than anything else except the moon. Finally, still watching the thing out of the corner of his eye, he picked up the phone. "I see something."
"I guess you do!" Skiddy shouted. "Are you trying to wreck my eardrums, throwing that phone around?"
"What is it?"
"Where have you been for the last twenty-four hours?"
"Grading essays. Writing. What is it?"
"Nobody knows—that's the point! Try turning on your radio or TV every now and then."
Still craning his neck to keep the light in sight, Dan reached for his TV remote and began to channel surf.
CNN: "The strange light can apparently be seen from any location in the world ..."
FOX: "It looks the same in South America, China, Africa ..."
CNBC: "... no commonsense explanation. Some suggestions have included a weather balloon, experimental aircraft, or an errant satellite. All have been disproved ..."
"This is really crazy," Dan said, shifting his attention to the TV, to the sky, and back to Skiddy. "What do you think? Any ideas?"
"You've got an attention problem," the Harvard psychologist said in the snide, sarcastic tone that Dan knew so well. "Are you at all interested in why I called?"
"Sure, sure," Dan replied.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL: "Telescopes don't help. Neither do high-altitude reconnaissance flights. The object looks the same, no matter how close you get to it ..."
ABC: "In Israel, a woman has claimed that when the light focused on her, a persistent case of scaly psoriasis immediately disappeared from her skin ..."
CBS: "Wild theories and rumors abound. Antiwar groups are certain that a cover-up is in the works—perhaps a new super-weapon in space, or some breakthrough in spy technology. UFO enthusiasts suspect first contact with an alien civilization. Religious gurus see an apocalyptic scenario and warn that the end of the world is near ..."
Skiddy's voice broke through the TV chatter. "You're not listening!"
"Sure I am, sure I am."
CNN: "Mass hysteria in unlikely places—Cuthbert, Georgia ... Vero Beach, Florida ... Bryan, Texas ... Missoula, Montana ..."
ENTERTAINMENT CHANNEL: "Parties to welcome alien visitors break out in the Bahamas, Cancún, L.A. ..."
"Dan, if you don't shut that TV off, I'm hanging up—and you lose a research stipend."
Now Skiddy had his attention. Dan pressed the Off button on his remote.
"Sorry. Go ahead. What's up?"
"Finally!" Skiddy said, thoroughly exasperated. "Now listen carefully. I only want to say this once. I've got enough foundation money to help us study this thing all summer in the Middle East—mainly Israel. Are you packed?"
"Why over there? Why Israel?"
"Because that's where the UFO performs its weirdest tricks. The only substantiated report of a healing came from there. The religious gurus are gathering in Jerusalem. That's where the action is."
Dan Thompson liked the idea immediately. It meant adventure. It meant publication possibilities—an essential consideration for any academic type. And it meant money.
Sometimes he earned more from these summer schemes than from his regular salary as an Amherst College religion professor. His regular "summer job," he confided to his academic colleagues with just a touch of cynicism, was to satisfy the curiosity of gullible religious millionaires about spiritual healing, prayer power, exorcisms, and "miracles" of various types.
Religion was big business these days—and you didn't have to believe a thing to get the bucks. Dan had learned long ago that Skiddy was a spiritual chameleon at heart. He changed his surface religiosity on cue in pursuit of big foundation grants. Pentecostal today. Hindu tomorrow.
His blatant opportunism sometimes offended even Dan—who placed himself somewhere between lukewarm agnostic and bored, morning-prayer Episcopalian. But Dan never felt quite offended enough to walk away from the generous stipends Skiddy dangled in front of him.
"Who's on your research team?" Dan asked.
"I'll direct the research, of course."
Of course, Dan thought, though he didn't dare verbalize his sarcasm.
"And the main astronomer will be Dudley Dunster, from the university."
For Skiddy, the "university" or the "college" always referred to Harvard, as though there were no other comparable schools of higher learning. Somehow, Dudley, a Harvard astronomer who was about ten years Skiddy's junior, and even more arrogant and sarcastic, always managed to be included in the older man's work and social life. The two men, both of whom had recently gone through bitter divorces, played off each other like some Ivy League sick-comedy act.
"And there's that astrophysicist from the University of California, Geoffrey Gonzales, the one who writes about time and new universes and such."
The first truly qualified choice.
"And we have to include a Christian fundamentalist, because that's where the money is coming from. Our benefactor is a Baptist billionaire. Very deep pockets—and that's great for us. Fellow named Peter Van Campe. He runs a huge foundation, Panoplia International. It's based near Chicago, where a lot of those evangelical groups have their headquarters."
"The evangelical Vatican," Dan said under his breath.
"That's what some people call the area—the evangelical Vatican—because of all the evangelical Christian ministries that are based there."
"Whatever. If this thing goes well, I might even become a Baptist myself. Anyhow, I had to agree to this Van Campe's suggestion that we include a teacher from Wheaton College, the religious school out in Illinois."
"What's the Bible-thumper's name?" Dan asked.
"James, as I recall. Professor Michael James."
The political choice.
"And that's where you come into play—as the rational religionist from Amherst College. Our northeastern skeptic. You'll be the counterbalance to Professor James. If he starts getting out of hand, I'll rely on you to keep him in line. It's essential that our conclusions be intellectually acceptable. No sectarian wackiness. You may even be able to contribute something independently. This thing may have some sort of religious angle."
"What do you mean?"
"A lot of right-wing religious people—some of those TV preachers, especially—already have the ear of politicians here and in Israel. It's amazing. Within just a couple of hours, CNN, FOX, and even the BBC were broadcasting interviews with some of these fundamentalist leaders. If we don't come up with a rational, scientific explanation for this thing pretty quickly, they may upstage us—and that wouldn't help my future fund-raising efforts."
With Skiddy, funding the bottom line was always at the top of his agenda. His lavish lifestyle—a new Mercedes every other year, a second home on Cape Cod that was more than just a vacation home, and expensive cruises every summer—depended heavily on the grant money he siphoned off for his personal use. Dan found himself wishing that once, just once, he could get involved in a summer research project that placed the simple search for truth before all else.
Unfortunately, these days it seemed that some ulterior motive backed up by big money always lay behind scientific or scholarly investigations. You were out of luck if your findings didn't enhance the profit potential of a major corporation. Or promote the belief system of some eccentric millionaire or biased foundation board. Or make headlines in the New York Times.
"Who else is going on the trip?" Dan asked.
"Nobody else," Skiddy replied. "Don't want to dilute the grant money any more than we have to."
"Can you fit Joanna into the program?"
"A touch of nepotism?"
"So she's my wife. So what? Besides, you need a woman to round things out."
"I'm one step ahead of you," Skiddy said. "I already have one woman lined up for the team—an Israeli archaeologist and expert in ancient languages. Dr. Yael Sharon. She'll also be our project manager. Comes with high recommendations as a hands-on administrator. And I understand she's solid with the Israeli government. She should be able to cut through the red tape. So we already have our female representative. Besides, my Christian billionaire isn't hung up about meeting some sort of gender quota."
Dan thought he could sense some of Skiddy's hostility toward women seeping through his words—a trace, no doubt, of that tough divorce. But the Amherst scholar wasn't about to give up.
"Your billionaire may not care about gender quotas, but your Harvard colleagues might. One woman isn't enough for this sort of project. Also, Joanna has credentials you could use—Yale prof, history of science, degrees in physics and electrical engineering. Expert with equipment I don't begin to understand. Who knows what skills may be required to figure out that light?"
"Okay, Danny boy," Skiddy sighed. "We'll sign up your wife. But I expect some sort of discount. Maybe we can put her on part-time. And you owe me for this."
Good ole Skiddy, Dan thought with an inward sigh. He could have held his own at the business school.
At least now, he and Joanna would be able to spend the summer together. That was a real accomplishment—and might help their marriage, which had been heading on a steep downhill course since Christmas. Even before that, the long periods of separation hadn't helped their relationship, as she spent most of each week in New Haven focusing on her Yale teaching duties, and he was stuck an hour and a half away in Amherst.
To make the deal more attractive for his wife, Dan would insist that he and Joanna be paid equally for this project—even if they were both put on some sort of part-time status. Joanna had insisted from the very beginning, and Dan had agreed, that they would be equal partners in their marriage. Her choice to keep her family name, Hill, had symbolized the parity, and there were also practical implications.
For one thing, she had let him know early on that her career had to be given a priority, even if it meant that they might have to live apart for a good part of each week. Whenever they discussed the future, their jobs, possessions, and vacation plans dominated the conversation. Family and children weren't part of the picture at all.
Joanna's fierce independence sometimes put extra strains on their marriage, to the point that Dan had begun to wonder if they would make it as a couple at all. He felt that he was the one who was always making the adjustments and concessions, while she was arranging everything for her own benefit. During the past year tensions had intensified so much that when they were together, they seemed to spend more time arguing than enjoying each other's company.
But maybe this project can bring us together again. Maybe we can turn it into a nice holiday. Do a little touring. And earn good money besides. She's certainly suited for this assignment.
As Dan reflected further on Joanna's expertise and technical background, he strongly suspected she might actually be a better choice than he was. Most likely, he and this James fellow from Wheaton would just be extra baggage. Religion was almost certain to take a backseat to science because after all, you could actually see this light in the sky. He expected it would be only a matter of time before the scientists came up with a reasonable explanation.
But now he turned to his immediate task—which he knew could prove formidable. He had to convince his strong-minded spouse to put aside her own summer research, which she was finalizing at this very moment. Instead, he would argue, she should join him on a wild-goose chase to the Middle East. Funded by a billionaire Midwesterner and fundamentalist. A hard sell indeed. Seemed sillier the more he thought about it.
Still, this wild-goose chase apparently involved a goose that laid golden grant-money eggs. And the expedition would be exciting. Mysterious.
As Dan speed-dialed Joanna's number, he finalized his strategy. He needed a hook. He would emphasize that Skiddy's largesse would give them the down payment they needed for that little beach cottage on Cape Cod—the one that was supposed to be coming on the market not too far from Skiddy's place. Surely she would agree that her lower-paying research could be put on hold for another summer.
And let's face it. What could possibly go wrong? Who could ever regret an all-expense-paid second honeymoon in the exotic Middle East?
She obviously wasn't kidding.
"Thanks," Dan retorted, smarting at the crack.
Ignoring his sarcasm, she pushed ahead on the same track: "This James person is irrelevant too. The one from the fundamentalist school—what's it called?"
"The only Wheaton I know of is in Massachusetts."
"Yeah, well maybe, just maybe, you don't know everything," Dan muttered. "This one is in Illinois, near Chicago."
"Anyhow, I don't know what either of you is doing on this team. This is a scientific investigation."
Dan had to force himself to hold his tongue. He was on the verge of reminding her that she wouldn't have been included if he hadn't gone to bat for her with Skiddy. But he thought better of it. From past experience, he knew that pointed repartee could easily anger his wife, and he just didn't want to deal with that right now. The extensive airport security procedures had put them all on edge, and he wasn't in any mood to aggravate matters further.
As he followed Joanna down the aisle of the crowded aircraft, she chattered on about why she was certain a scientific solution to the strange light was inevitable.
"Number one, I can see the light with my own eyes—and with my telescopes," she said, holding up a thumb to stress the point.
"Number two"—holding up her index finger—"news reports in the papers and on TV show that photographic equipment can record it.
"Number three"—holding up another finger—"it's virtually certain that one of our scientific instruments—a spectroscope or simple photometer or something—will at least point us toward an answer."
"Spectroscope?" Dan said, obviously not keeping up with her.
"It measures the relative intensity and nature of light across the entire spectrum," Joanna explained, obviously laboring to be patient. "The method can tell us a lot, such as the temperature of the object and whether it's moving toward or away from our position."
Without pausing for a response, she swept her long auburn hair away from her flashing brown eyes and shrugged matter-of-factly as they took their seats.
Excerpted from THE LAST STAR by William Proctor Copyright © 2000 by William Proctor. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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