Book excerpt

Power Play

Ben Bova

Tor/Forge

JAMES A. VAN ALLEN MUSEUM OF SCIENCE
 

“MHD?” asked Jake Ross. “What’s MHD?”
Leverett Cardwell smiled his enigmatic little smile and replied, “It stands for magnetohydrodynamics.”
“Oh, like Alfvén.”
Jake was walking with the older man along the Hall of Planets, which ran the length of the museum’s planetarium. They were passing beneath the model of Mars, a rust-red globe dotted with long-dead volcanoes. He had first introduced himself to Dr. Cardwell at almost this exact spot, more than a dozen years earlier.
“Alfvén dealt with astrophysics. The branch of MHD I’m talking about now is a way of generating electricity very efficiently,” Cardwell went on, his tenor voice soft but perfectly clear. “An MHD generator can produce a lot of power in a relatively small piece of equipment.”
Jake nodded. Lev was up to something, he knew. The old man didn’t just chat to pass the time of day. He had some purpose in mind.
Jacob Ross had first come to the Van Allen museum on a mandatory class trip when he’d been in middle school. None of the guys wanted to go to a geeky science museum, Jake included. But once the teachers got the kids settled into the strange, round, domed room that housed the museum’s planetarium, the lights dimmed slowly until the place was pitch black. And then they turned on the stars. Thousands of stars sprang out of the darkness, with the faint glowing ribbon of the Milky Way arching among them. Young Jake got turned on, too. Sitting in the darkness, watching the stars wheel in stately procession overhead, he became hooked on astronomy for life.
He rode city buses to the museum every weekend. He scraped together enough money from his after-school jobs to buy a student membership. He attended the planetarium shows so often he began to learn the lectures by heart.
And he discovered that the soft, clear voice that explained the stars in the darkness belonged to Dr. Leverett Cardwell, the planetarium’s director. With some trepidation, Jake fumblingly asked Dr. Cardwell a question about his lecture one Sunday afternoon, out in the hallway under the model of Mars, while the rest of the audience streamed past after the planetarium show had ended.
“You’ve been coming pretty regularly, haven’t you?” Cardwell asked the youngster.
Surprised and pleased that the director had noticed him, Jake stuttered, “Y … yessir.”
Thus began a lifelong friendship. Cardwell took Jake under his wing, opened the planetarium’s library to him, and helped him win a scholarship to the state university.
And now Lev was talking about something called MHD.
“Magnetohydrodynamics, huh?” Jake said.
Walking slowly toward the bright yellow globe of the Sun glowing above the museum’s entrance lobby, Cardwell said, “There’s a group of people in the university’s electrical engineering department who are working on MHD power generation.”
Why’s he telling me this? Jake wondered. But he knew he wouldn’t have to ask; Lev would explain it to him in his own time.
Jake had grown into a reasonably healthy young man. Scrawny as a child, picked on by the neighborhood bullies, he’d worked hard on homemade exercise equipment to build himself up. Now he stood just short of six feet tall, still on the lean side, but solid. His hair was dark and unruly, his face too long and horsy to satisfy him. Even so he’d been fairly popular with women, and married his high school sweetheart. But since his wife’s fatal car accident he’d kept to himself.
Leverett Cardwell was a tiny man, round-faced, balding, so neat and carefully groomed that some thought him effeminate. His large, round, slightly protruding owl-gray eyes always seemed to Jake to be searching, inquisitive. Jake had never seen Lev wearing anything but a gray wool suit, winter or summer, and a jaunty little bow tie.
“I’ve been invited to a cocktail party by one of Frank Tomlinson’s people,” Cardwell said as they walked slowly toward the museum’s entrance.
Frowning at the seeming change of subject, Jake asked, “Isn’t he the guy they say might run against Senator Leeds?”
Cardwell nodded, his smile turning almost impish. “If Tomlinson decides to run, he’s going to need somebody on his staff to advise him about science. I think you could do the job very well, Jake.”
“Me?” Jake’s voice squeaked with surprise. “I’m just an associate professor. I don’t even have tenure yet.”
“Aren’t you up for tenure this year?”
Nodding gloomily, Jake answered, “Along with five other people, including a Hispanic woman. Besides, I’m the youngest. They’ll give it to one of the others this time around.”
Nonchalantly waving a hand in the air, Cardwell said, “Maybe not. Maybe they’ll surprise you.”
Jake made an unhappy grunt.
“I think it would be a good idea for you to attend the Tomlinson party,” Cardwell said. “Meet the man. Let him meet you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’ve been keeping to yourself too much, Jake. I know Louise’s death was a blow, but that was more than a year ago—”
Jake stopped walking. He could feel his guts twisting. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nothing matters much anymore. It’s just … Lev, nothing’s any fun anymore.”
“You can’t have any fun sitting by yourself watching old movies on television.”
“I don’t just watch television.”
“What else do you do?”
“Prepare my lectures. Do my research. I’m working on a proposal for the imaging team on the next Mars lander.”
“You need a social life, my boy.”
Jake looked down at the man who’d been his mentor for so many years. Mentor? Hell, Lev’s been more of a father to me than my old man ever was, he told himself. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. I’d still be back in the ’hood, in those narrow streets and row houses, working some dumb-ass job and dodging the wiseguys.
Reluctantly he asked, “I won’t have to wear a tux, will I?”
Cardwell laughed. “Heavens, no. This is just a cocktail party, not a formal occasion.”
Jake capitulated. “Okay, I’ll go, if you think I should.”
“I do indeed, Jacob.”
“When and where? What time should I pick you up?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, I’m not going!”
“You’re not?”
“No. This is an opportunity for you, Jake. They’re not interested in an old geezer like me.”
Jake felt stunned. Lev was past sixty, he knew. But that’s not old! he told himself. There must be some other reason why he wants me to go without him.

 
Copyright © 2011 by Ben Bova

Ben Bova is a six-time winner of the Hugo Award, a former editor of Analog, former editorial director of Omni, and a past president of both the National Space Society and the Science Fiction Writers of America. Bova is the author of more than a hundred works of science fact and fiction. He lives in Florida.