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Excerpt: Neptune by Ben Bova

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Hugo Award winner Ben Bova continues his grand tour of the human settled solar system with a fan-pleasing look at life in the Outer Planets, among the moons of Neptune.

In the future, humanity has spread throughout the solar system, on planets and moons once visited only by robots or explored at a distance by far-voyaging spacecraft. No matter how hostile or welcoming the environment, mankind has forged a path and found a home.

In the far reaches of the solar system, the outer planets—billions of miles from Earth, unknown for millennia—are being settled. Neptune, the ice giant, is swathed in clouds of hydrogen, helium, and methane and circled by rings of rock and dust. Three years ago, Ilona Magyr’s father, Miklos, disappeared while exploring the seas of Neptune. Everyone believes he is dead—crushed, frozen, or boiled alive in Neptune’s turbulent seas.

With legendary space explorer Derek Humbolt piloting her ship and planetary scientist Jan Meitner guiding the search, Ilona Magyr knows she will find her father—alive—on Neptune.

Her plans are irrevocably altered when she and her team discover the wreckage of an alien ship deep in Neptune’s ocean, a discovery which changes humanity’s understanding of its future…and its past.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Neptune by Ben Bova, on sale 08/17/2021. 


Budaörs, Hungary

On a very clear day from the top floor of the unfinished glass-walled tower you could see the dark smudge on the northwestern horizon that marked the capital, Budapest.

Even in its incomplete state the tower was of course the tallest building in the city of Budaörs, a slim, soaring monument to the pride and wealth of Baron Miklos Magyr, the richest man in the city, in all of Hungary, in the whole of southeastern Europe.

For slightly more than three years the glittering entrance to the incomplete Magyr Tower  had been draped in black, mourning for the baron’s death in the dark, ice-clad ocean that encompasses the distant world of Neptune.

The baron’s daughter, Ilona, kept the funeral drapery in place, driven by grief and the prideful stubbornness that was a hallmark of the ancient Magyr family, whose ancestry could be traced back to those medieval days when the Hungarians were nomadic invaders of Europe galloping out of the endless wastes of the east, fierce and merciless. And clever. In time they settled in the fertile valley of the Danube, adopted Christianity, and became a powerful defender of the land against the new tribes of would-be invaders pouring in from the West.

Sitting alone in Castle Magyr’s spacious dining hall, the remains of her breakfast nothing more than crumbs scattered across her dishes, Ilona Magyr gazed at the portraits lining the walls around her. Her ancestors gazed down at her, proud, imperious, self-satisfied.

Ilona thought for the thousandth time that she should commission a portrait of her father. She would have it hung at the head of the hall, above the seat she occupied. But she shook her head. No, that would be admitting that he is dead. I can’t do that.

The chief butler, Ghulam, approached her as silently as a wraith.

“The children are waiting in the gymnasium,” he said in a near whisper.

Ilona looked up into the butler’s expressionless face. Ghulam was like the furniture that surrounded her, as much a part of the castle as its foundation stones. He was almost as tall as Ilona herself, but thickset, dark of complexion, his black hair cut in a bowl that framed his impassive face. He had been a member of the castle’s staff since Ilona had been a baby, as were his father and his father’s father.

“I’ll be there directly,” Ilona said, pushing her chair back. Ghulam guided the chair away from the table as Ilona got to her feet.

She was strikingly tall, slim, her bony long-jawed face far from beautiful but intelligent, purposeful, with a drive and a temper that matched her long, flowing red hair. She knew that her jaw was too strong for the rest of her face: some called it stubborn, even haughty. he accepted it as a family inheritance. She was wearing a fencer’s uniform: a white, high-collared padded jacket and knee-length knickers.

As she got to her feet, Ghulam reminded her softly, “Captain Humbolt is due in one hour.”

“Yes,” said Ilona. “I know.”

The Fencing Academy

Twenty-five girls and boys—aged from nine to fifteen—were waiting for Ilona in the castle’s spacious gymnasium, one floor below the grand ballroom.

All of them wore fencing outfits: high-collared white jackets with matching knickers and wire-mesh helmets. Several of them were already whacking away at one another, the ringing of steel blade against steel blade almost drowned out by the excited shouts of the youngsters gathered around the duelists.

The action and the clamor died instantly as Ilona strode into the gym, dressed in her form-hugging fencing uniform. The combatants whipped off their helmets and saluted her with their swords.

“Places, everyone!” she called out, clapping her hands sharply.

The girls and boys immediately lined up, pulled their helmets over their heads, grasped their sabers in their gloved hands.

For nearly an hour Ilona worked them up and down the length of the gym. “Forward!” she commanded. “Right foot, left foot—lunge!” And twenty-five sabers flashed out, straight and true.

At last Ilona saw Ghulam appear at the door, nodding silently to her. Humbolt has arrived, Ilona thought.

She pointed to the tallest boy among her pupils, who hurried to her side.

“Take over for me, Janos,” she said. “One hour, then let them go home.”

Janos—tall and gangly—grinned and nodded. He had been a member of the fencing class since Ilona had started it, more than six years earlier. She left him in the middle of the floor and headed for the door where Ghulam waited.

Then Ilona saw that another man was standing in the doorway, behind the butler. Derek Humbolt, Ilona realized.

Humbolt was known throughout the worlds as the most fearless, most competent, boldest explorer of them all. And a legendary womanizer. He was wearing a high-collared jacket, skintight trousers and calf-length boots polished to a mirror finish.

Smiling, Ilona thought he looked like a ruggedly handsome brute. His reputation must be well-earned, she told herself.

“Captain Humbolt,” she called as she approached him.

With a gracious sweep of his arm, he replied, “Baroness Magyr.”

Ghulam stepped back, leaving the two of them standing face-to-face.

“It was good of you to come,” Ilona said.

His lips curved into a smile. “An invitation from the baroness can’t be ignored.”

Raising her saber, Ilona smiled back and asked, “Do you fence?”

Humbolt looked past her to the youngsters exercising noisily across the gymnasium’s floor. “Not with swords, I’m afraid.”

“Too bad.”

“I suppose I could learn, although I imagine I’m a bit too old to start now.”

“Nonsense!” said Ilona. “You’re in the prime of life.”

“How kind of you to say so.”

Calling to the butler, Ilona said, “Ghulam, please show Captain Humbolt some of the castle while I get out of these sweaty clothes and wash up.”

“Certainly, Baroness.”

Turning back to Humbolt, she said, “I’ll meet you on the rooftop in half an hour.”

Half an hour later, dressed in a powder-blue pantsuit that accentuated her long, lean, leggy figure, Ilona sat at the table that had been set in the exact center of the spacious, nearly empty, roofless top floor of the castle and with an excellent view of the unfinished Magyr Tower. She silently studied Derek Humbolt, sitting across from her.

Humbolt was a bare two centimeters shorter than the willowy Ilona, broad of shoulder and flat of midsection, his dark thickly curled hair flecked with gray, his craggy face handsome enough to seem totally at ease even in the presence of Magyr riches. His jet-black eyes sparkled as he sipped at the wine that the robot server had poured.

“You set a good table,” he said to Ilona, placing the long-stemmed wineglass down as precisely as landing an interplanetary spacecraft.

Ilona smiled minimally. “I didn’t invite you here merely for lunch, you know.”

“I guessed that,” Humbolt said, his broad smile dazzling.

Ilona looked back at Humbolt. She could see it in his eyes: He wants to seduce me. I’m nothing more than a potential conquest, as far as he’s concerned. The trick will be to get him to agree to heading the mission without submitting to his male ego.

“I intend to go to Neptune,” she said flatly.

“The planet Neptune?” Humbolt asked, his brows rising. “That’s a long way from here.”

Ilona nodded slightly. “My father is there.”

“He died there.”

“I don’t believe that he is dead.”

Humbolt’s face remained smiling, but tensed visibly. He said, “Nothing’s been heard from him for more than three years. He must be dead.”

“Or cryonically preserved.”

“In cold storage? Not bloody likely.”

For the flash of an instant Ilona wanted to lean across the luncheon dishes and slap the self-certain egotist in his smiling face. She could picture the shock that would rattle his smug confidence. But she suppressed the impulse. You get better results with sugar, she heard her sainted mother whispering in her mind.

“My father is an ingenious man. I believe he might well have chosen cryonic preservation once he realized his submersible was beyond recovery. I believe he’s waiting for me to find him.”

Humbolt shook his head slowly. “The temperature of Neptune’s ocean gets hotter, the deeper you go. Even if your father somehow rigged a cryonic system to freeze his body, it would have crapped out by now.”

Ilona’s dark gaze flashed again, but she chose again to ignore his deliberate crudity. “I need someone to pilot my ship to Neptune and enter its ocean to search for my father. I’ve been told you are the best man for the job.”

“That’s probably true,” Humbolt said, his easy smile returning.

“Will you do it?”

“Will you be coming along?”

“Of course.”

Fixing his gaze on Ilona’s cobalt-blue eyes, Humbolt asked, “How much are you willing to pay?”

“Whatever you wish,” Ilona replied, quickly adding, “Within reason.”

Agreement

Humbolt’s heavy dark brows rose slightly in surprise.

“Whatever I wish?” His smile broadened. “I don’t come cheaply, you know.”

Ilona’s face remained perfectly serious. “I know precisely what you earned on your last four excursions,” she said.

“Those were all missions to Jupiter and Saturn,” he replied, his expression unchanged. “Neptune is a lot farther . . . and much less understood. That makes it more dangerous.”

“That’s why my father went there. To explore. To discover.”

“I would require a minimum of five million New Dollars.”

At last Ilona smiled back at him. “I expected nothing less.”

Humbolt broke into a wide grin. “That’s agreeable to you?”

“Agreeable,” Ilona answered.

With a crafty expression on his ruggedly handsome face, Humbolt asked, “And you intend to come along with me?”

“Of course.”

“As crew?”

“As owner.”

“Ah. No duties, then.”

“The submersible is highly automated. It needs only a captain to give it directions.”

“Very good.” Humbolt thrust his right hand across the table.

“We are in agreement?”

Ilona could see the picture in his mind: the two of them, alone together at the far end of the solar system, millions of kilometers away from any other human being. Very deliberately she allowed him to imagine the possibilities.

She took his hand in hers. “Done.”

“Done,” he echoed.

They got up from their improvised luncheon table. Ilona walked slowly to the edge of the parapet looking toward the glass and steel Magyr Tower.

Standing beside her, Humbolt asked, “Do you intend to ever finish the tower?”

She shrugged minimally. “When we find my father and bring him back, he can direct the work that remains to be done.”

“But if we don’t find him?”

Again she shrugged her slim shoulders. “I really haven’t considered that possibility.”

Into Orbit

Humbolt stared out at the rolling landscape, in the direction of Budapest. The afternoon was pleasantly warm and sunny, the landscape beyond the edge of the city was green and orderly, cultivated by untold generations of hardworking peasants and, in more recent decades, by industrious indefatigable robots.

“You have a beautiful country,” he said to Ilona.

Without turning to look at him she replied, “We worked hard to make it beautiful. And to keep it that way.”

Still gazing at the green countryside, he murmured, “Neptune is a long way from here.”

“Yes, it is. I understand that.”

“It will take several weeks to get there, and then we’ll have to go through the encircling windy clouds, crash through the ice and dive down into that ocean. Most of it is unexplored.”

“I have contracted with the Interplanetary Council; they will pay a sizable fee for whatever we find down there.”

“We’ll need a very reliable ship.”

“I’ve already bought one. It’s being refurbished even as we speak.”

Humbolt’s cocky grin returned. “Have you now?”

“Would you like to see it?”

“Certainly.”

“It’s at the orbital maintenance facility at the L4 station. We can ride up there tomorrow.”

“You’ve already made arrangements for the trip?” Humbolt asked.

Pointing to a wide treeless open area on the outskirts of the city, Ilona said, “My family owns the local spaceport. I’ll phone the manager and make the arrangements.”

#

The following morning Ilona met Humbolt at the office of the spaceport’s manager. The two of them were treated with great courtesy and driven to a rocket shuttle, standing on its tail fins, fully fueled and crewed, waiting for them to arrive.

Humbolt went slightly slack-jawed as they were escorted up the ramp and into the shuttle’s interior. The passenger compartment was empty except for them and the uniformed steward.

“You travel first class,” he said.

“Why not?” Ilona asked carelessly.

The steward gestured to the first row of seats, but Ilona went past him and slipped into the third row, taking the window seat. Humbolt slid in beside her and started pulling the safety harness over his broad shoulders.

As Ilona reached for her safety harness, the steward said, in a respectful whisper, “Liftoff is scheduled for fifteen minutes from now. May I bring you a refreshment while you wait?”

“A glass of Tokaji Aszú, please,” said Ilona, with the smile that a noblewoman reserves for dealing with servants.

“And you, sir?” the steward asked Humbolt.

“Egri Bikavérfor me.”

Ilona’s smile changed. Bull’s Blood, she thought. How macho. How common.

The steward brought their wines and Ilona clinked glasses with Humbolt.

The overhead speaker announced, “Liftoff in twelve minutes.” It was a robot’s flat emotionless voice, Ilona knew.

They sat in growing anticipation as they finished their wine and allowed the steward to take the empty glasses away. Humbolt sat back in easy anticipation; Ilona tried to hide the slight edge of nervousness that always crept over her during the endless moments of a countdown.

At last the speakers announced, “Three . . . two . . . one—liftoff.

Even through the passenger compartment’s heavy acoustic insulation, the rocket engines’ thunderous roar filled the air. The shuttle shuddered as it lifted, slowly at first and then with growing acceleration, pressing them into their cushioned seats. Ilona stared through the small oval window as the Earth fell farther and farther away. Within seconds a cloud cover obscured her view.

“We’re off!” Humbolt said needlessly, and Ilona realized the man was just as excited, just as nervous, just as thrilled as she was.

For the first time since boarding the shuttle, she relaxed.

 

#

 

Ilona listened attentively to the prerecorded safety lecture as the robotic voice warned that the shuttle would be effectively in zero gravity for the few moments it took to connect to the L4 station’s hatch. Humbolt grinned at her as he unclicked his safety harness and floated up out of his seat.

“Don’t like zero gee?” he asked.

Ilona shook her head, slightly annoyed. “It’s okay. I’ve experienced zero gravity several times.” She did not bother to explain that she’d flown into orbit a half-dozen times to acclimatize herself to weightlessness.

She let the safety straps float up off her shoulders and then rose gracefully out of her seat, taking care to grasp the back of the seat before her.

The steward floated along the aisle toward them and led them to the main hatch. They waited in expectant silence until the lights beside the hatch turned green and the overhead speaker announced, “You are now free to leave the shuttle. Have a pleasant visit to the L4 facility.”

The hatch popped open slightly. The steward reached out and pushed it fully open.

“Welcome to L4,” he said, with a mechanical smile.

Grateful for the feeling of gravity that made her innards feel normal once again, Ilona stepped out of the shuttle and into the reception area of the massive L4 space station. With Humbolt at her side she headed out to the passageway and the nearest observation blister.

The blister was empty, of course, cleared of other visitors by the station’s staff. It was a longish enclosure, dimly lit, with a row of comfortable armchairs running along its middle. Its curving roof was transparent, and through it Ilona saw the beautiful blue and white curve of Earth sliding by.

“Aahhh,” Humbolt sighed, staring out at it.

Ilona was standing with her back toward him. “This way,” she instructed.

Humbolt turned. Hanging there in space was a huge metallic sphere. Sparks glinted here and there across its wide metallic surface: robots at work.

“That’s your ship?” Humbolt asked.

Ilona heard surprise in his voice. And, for the first time, respect.

“Yes,” she replied. “Hári János.

Staring at the globular ship as it floated in orbital space, Humbolt’s handsome face now contracted into a puzzled frown.

“She looks familiar.”

“You flew her to Saturn,” said Ilona, “back when she was known as John F. Kennedy.

Humbolt’s bewilderment vanished. “Of course! The JFK! I rode that bird into Saturn’s ocean. Twice.”

Ilona allowed the beginnings of a smile to curve her lips. “I bought her from the Astronomical Association. She’s being refurbished now, brought up to date.”

“Under a new name.”

Nodding, Ilona explained, “Hári János is a Hungarian national hero.”

“A myth, isn’t he?”

“Is he? He kept Napoleon from invading Hungary.”

“By bedding Marie Louise.”

“According to the tale,” said Ilona.

“A rogue. A braggart. A barroom drinker.”

“A national hero,” Ilona repeated.

Humbolt shook his head.

Ilona asked, “Would you like to go aboard and see how we have updated the ship’s equipment?”

“Of course!”

The Hári János

From the observation blister Ilona led Humbolt back down to the docking area, past the berth where their shuttle was moored, and to a smallish debarkation port. A team of six—two men, two women and two human-sized robots—were waiting there. They all snapped to stiff attention as Ilona stepped through the port’s entrance hatch.

Behind the team ran a row of lockers. Glancing at Humbolt, Ilona said, “You are size eleven-A, so I was told.”

He nodded, grinning. “You’ve done your homework.”

Pointing to the lanky, redheaded man standing nearest her, Ilona said, “My assistant has.”

It took several moments for them to pick suitable nanofabric space suits from the lockers and worm into them. The suits were light and transparent, like rain gear, except for the thick-soled boots and the glassteel bubble helmets.

With the robots standing inertly to one side, the four human crew members helped Ilona and Humbolt into the suits, hung the life-support backpacks on their shoulders, then quickly checked them.

“You are good for EVA,” said the red-haired team leader, gesturing toward the airlock hatch at the locker room’s far end.

Without a word Ilona clomped in the heavy boots toward the hatch, Humbolt behind her. Her heart was thumping with a mixture of excitement and fear, but she didn’t want Humbolt to notice her emotions.

They stepped into the smallish, almost claustrophobic airlock, Ilona first. Once Humbolt stood beside her, the inner hatch swung slowly closed.

The airlock was bathed in lurid red light. An automated voice announced, “Evacuation initiated.” Ilona heard the clatter of a pump that dwindled as the air was sucked out of the enclosure.

“Opening outer hatch,” the mechanical voice announced.

Ilona stared wordlessly as the outer hatch swung open. She saw a spattering of stars, hard and bright, against the utter blackness of space. To one side hung the curve of Earth, green swaths of land and glittering blue ocean with a parade of purest white clouds marching across it.

And before them, slightly higher than their hatch, rode the huge sphere of Hári János, gleaming with reflected sunlight.

Without a word to Humbolt, she stepped to the edge of the airlock hatch and clipped the safety line coiled at her waist to one of the bolts ringing the airlock’s hatch.

Humbolt said, “You know what you’re doing, don’t you?” She heard approval in his tone and was glad he couldn’t hear her heart thumping beneath her ribs.

“Ready?” she asked him.

“Ready,” Humbolt replied as he snapped his safety tether to one of the bolts along the opposite rim of the hatch.

Ilona stood for an endless moment at the edge of the hatch, then launched herself toward the massive globular spacecraft hanging a few dozen meters away. She made it to its oval entrance, gripped a bolt to keep herself from bouncing away, then pressed the stud that opened the outer hatch.

Humbolt glided up to her as the hatch slid open. He helped her connect her tether and then did his. With an exaggerated gesture, he pointed into the hatch’s interior and said, “Ladies first.”

Suppressing a flare of anger at his chauvinism, Ilona instead forced a smile and murmured, “Thank you, kind sir,” as she disconnected her safety line from the shuttle’s hatch and felt it reel up at her waist.

He disconnected himself from the shuttle too and entered the airlock behind her, waited until its display light turned green, then cracked the seal on his glassteel helmet.

With a pleasant smile he nodded and said, “Air’s okay.”

They floated through the inner hatch into a long tubular passageway that delved into the heart of the enormous spacecraft. Waiting in front of them was an open trolley that seated four people. Humbolt grinned as he pushed his bubble helmet up and over his head, leaving it dangling at the back of his neck. As Ilona did the same he commented, “This is an improvement. When I rode this bucket we had to slide along a guide wire, like tourists on a zip line.”

As she pulled herself into the waiting trolley, Ilona replied, “This is better.”

“And safer,” Humbolt added, sliding into the tiny car beside her and snapping his seatbelt.

Once they were both seated Ilona commanded, “Trolley go!”

The car started slowly down the long tube, picking up speed until the tunnel’s walls became a blur. Overhead lights turned on as they rushed by, and turned off as they passed.

“This is fun!” Humbolt hollered as they raced down the featureless tunnel.

Ilona smiled, amused.

“Twelve spheres, nested inside each other,” Humbolt said, in a schoolteacher’s lecturing tone.

“That’s how the ship deals with the increasing pressure as it goes deeper into Neptune’s ocean,” Ilona took up, to show she wasn’t ignorant of the concept.

“Right.”

“Theoretically, we can go all the way down to the ocean’s bottom.”

“I got about two-thirds of the way down to the bottom on Saturn, but one of the supporting pistons jammed and I had to go back up to the surface.”

Ilona saw the frustration that still etched his face, so many years after that mission.

She said, “The pressure you faced there was more than what we’ll have to deal with on Neptune.”

As if he hadn’t heard her, Humbolt muttered, “Two of my crew died on that mission. I’ve always wondered if it was something wrong that I did.”

Their little trolley was slowing down noticeably.

“Almost there,” Ilona said.

Humbolt nodded silently. She realized he was reliving the expedition to Saturn that had killed two of his crew.

They sat in silence as the trolley glided smoothly to a stop at the end of the long tunnel. They were at the heart of the massive spacecraft, Ilona knew. The place where they would spend weeks searching for her father’s submersible. Would he still be alive inside it, Ilona wondered, waiting for me in cryonic suspension?

Humbolt floated onto the platform that ran the length of their little trolley. His smile looking a bit forced, he bent slightly and extended his hand to Ilona. She gracefully grabbed it and moved next to him. Both felt the magnetic pull of the platform on their boots.

“Here we are,” he said.

Ilona nodded to the metal hatch at the end of the platform.

“Ready to inspect our command center?” she asked.

He grinned at her. “After you, boss.”

Command Center

With Humbolt a step behind her, Ilona walked to the end of the platform and said in a firm voice, “Hatch open, please.”

The metal hatch immediately slid back. Ilona stepped through the open doorway and the interior chamber lit up brightly.

“Everything’s voice activated within the twelve spheres?” he asked.

“Almost everything.”

Humbolt brushed past her, then hesitated as his head swiveled, taking in the command center.

“You’ve really improved it,” he murmured.

It was a circular chamber, its walls lined with display screens and rimmed with a continuous long, low sofa. At its center was a high-backed black-leather command chair, its armrests studded with control buttons, flanked on either side by two smaller chairs. Identical doors stood on either side of the compartment; the curved ceiling was the milky gray of still another set of display screens.

Dipping her chin toward the command chair, Ilona said, “You can run the entire ship by yourself.” She pointed to a shining metal circlet studded with electronic receivers. “The sensor ring will connect all the ship’s systems directly with your cerebral cortex.”

“And all those control studs in the armrests?” he asked.

“One of many backups.”

Jabbing a finger at the door to the left, Humbolt asked, “What’s behind them?”

“Crew quarters,” Ilona replied. “I don’t intend to spend the next few months of my life without my comforts.”

Humbolt brushed past her and went to the door. Opening it and walking along a short hallway. He came back a few minutes later and exclaimed, “Like a first-class hotel!”

Ilona said, “Two mini-suites on this side, two more on the other.”

“But there’s only the two of us.”

She could see it in his eyes: the thought of sharing her bed.

Pointing across the command center to the other door, she explained, “Your quarters will be on that side. I’ll bunk in here.”

He looked more thoughtful than disappointed. “That still leaves two bedrooms unoccupied.”

“One,” Ilona corrected. “We’re picking up a planetary scientist at Mars.”

Humbolt’s ruggedly handsome face registered surprise. And curiosity.

“Male or female?”

“A young man from the University of Munich. His name is Jan Meitner. Very brilliant, I’ve found.”

With a lascivious grin Humbolt asked, “Ménage à trois?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Ilona answered sharply. “This mission is to find my father. And do some exploration. You can forget about your erotic imaginings.”

To her surprise, Humbolt’s grin did not shrink by as much as a millimeter. “Hearkening and obedience,” he said, with a slight bow.

She knew what was going through his mind. Time is on my side, he was thinking.

The two of them returned their attention to the command center’s equipment. Eying the food dispensers at the rear of the compartment, Humbolt seemed satisfied that he had everything he needed, even more. The ship was well equipped, and stocked with enough food stores to last three people for half a year, at least.

Standing behind the central command chair, he nodded approvingly. “You seem to have thought of everything.”

Ilona responded, “I hired a team of the most renowned mission planners on Earth. They’ve thought of everything for me.”

Humbolt lowered his head in silent acknowledgment. He checked the sensor ring.

“Have you seen enough?” she asked.

“For the moment.” Casting his gaze around the viewscreens lining the circular chamber, he added, “I’d like to schedule a run-through tomorrow. Familiarize myself with the layout, get accustomed to the equipment, that sort of thing.”

“Certainly,” Ilona said.

As they stepped back to the hatch and the trolley waiting outside the command center, Humbolt asked, “This planetary scientist . . . how much do you know about him?”

Climbing down into the trolley, Ilona said, “I met him last year, at a seminar on Neptune’s life-forms that I attended. He is a very fine young man, from a good family. He’s studying the remains of the Martian civilization, digging through the ruins, that sort of thing.”

“And he’s giving that up to go to Neptune?”

“For what I’m paying him, I imagine he would go to the end of the Milky Way galaxy.”

Humbolt lowered himself into the trolley seat next to her, in silence. But the expression on his face looked thoughtful, almost worried.

Copyright © Ben Bova 2021

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