Prologue: Thomas Quinn
Jerome Quinn read the latest report from his son with growing curiosity. He sent a message requesting a videoconference.
The trillionaire technology magnate remembered a day fifteen years before when his son—then a slim, wisp of a boy—approached him in his home office. "It's been over a hundred years since the Apollo missions. Humans still haven't gone farther than Mars. Why not?"
"It's a matter of practicality, son," Jerome Quinn had answered.
"What's practicality mean?" Back then, Thomas preferred lying atop grassy mounds on his father's estate late at night looking up at the stars to playing sports. His father, who lifted weights and boxed to keep fit, was concerned that his son didn't run and play with the other boys at the private school he attended. In that way, he was very different from his younger brother Henry who took a strong interest in the family business and was constantly surrounded by friends.
"Space flight costs a lot of money." Jerome stood. The light streaming in from the tall window behind his great mahogany desk caused the big man to cast a shadow over the little boy. "In this case, practicality means that people want to make more money than they spend. The two Mars missions cost taxpayers too much money. All people ever saw were some red rocks and fossils of long-dead creatures—and they weren't even interesting creatures like dinosaurs." Jerome had laughed at his own comment, but the boy remained serious.
"What if spaceships could be built cheap? Cheaper than the Mars rockets?" he asked.
"That would be a start."
"What if I could find a way for a spaceship to earn money?" pressed the boy.
Jerome had nodded approval. "Then you might just get me to invest in your dream, son."
Young Thomas Quinn pursed his lips. "I'm gonna do it, dad."
Jerome had dismissed his son. The boy turned, sulking to the door. Before leaving the room, he'd looked over his shoulder as though he were going to say something, but thrust his hands in his pockets and continued on.
Jerome Quinn's thoughts returned to the present as Thomas's face appeared on the monitor. As a young adult, Thomas's features had grown angular. Stubble dotted his cheeks and a mop of hair topped his head. "You read the report?" he asked.
Jerome Quinn turned his attention back to the book-sized tome. "I'm still reading it," he admitted. "Have the people on the Moon really discovered particles that can move through time?"
"Not exactly…." Thomas hesitated. "They've found particles that seem to jump into the fourth dimension. The dimension of time."
The elder Quinn waved his scientist son's words aside as though the details were unimportant. He flipped through the dog-eared copy of the report until he came to the page he wanted. "You say that if you had enough of these particles in one place, you could use them to send bigger objects into the fourth dimension, that it might cause them to move forward or backward through time?"
"Theoretically." Thomas nodded. "Although, I'm not sure how controlled such a journey would be. The objects might just disappear from our reality completely."
Again, Jerome flapped his hand in the air, as though the words had a disagreeable smell. "Do you suppose there are more of those particles at our quinitite manufacturing facility?" He pointed skyward.
"Are you asking whether we should mine the Moon for these particles?" Thomas's eyebrows came together.
Thomas shook his head. "There were only a few of these particles … not enough to indicate that there's any great quantity on the Moon itself. It's like they're being generated from somewhere else in the solar system and we're only seeing the ones that pass by the Moon."
"Where in the solar system?" Jerome leaned in toward his computer monitor.
Again, Thomas shook his head. "I don't know."
"What would you need to find out?"
Thomas typed something on his keyboard. A graph appeared on Quinn's monitor. "The particles produce a very unique spectral signature in the radio band. I'd need to do a survey using a radio telescope like the Very Large Array in New Mexico."
"Is that facility still operating?"
Thomas nodded. "It's old, but it's a work horse. Most of the time's allocated to small colleges these days."
"The VLA has already performed surveys of the solar system, hasn't it?" asked Jerome. "Can't you use archival data? It would save us time and money."
Thomas sighed. "I've looked. There have been some broadband surveys near the spectral region, but nothing that exactly overlaps this—nothing that helps."
"Very well, then. I'll get you some observing time." Jerome reached out to terminate the connection, then paused. "The Quinn name could attract our competitors' attention. You should use an alias as you continue this research."
Thomas considered that, then nodded. "I can do that."
Satisfied, Jerome gave a nod.
"Dad," interjected Thomas before Jerome could terminate the call. "May I ask what you plan to do if we find more of the particles?"
Jerome regarded his son for a moment, then took the report and flipped to the final section. "You're the one who gave me the ideas. Experimenting with time travel is one possibility. It would certainly bring us some good press."
Thomas's face went pale as he looked away. He licked his lips. "A weapon is another … you could send an enemy into the fourth dimension. They might disappear forever."
Jerome stood and walked to the window, letting his son see only his back. "No matter what the application, if you find those particles, you'll have helped Quinn Corp more than you can imagine. It'll stand you and your brother in good stead. Weapons make a lot of money for the manufacturer."
"I think Quinn Corp would get better press from a time machine and it could bring us still more money," argued Thomas, sounding uncertain. "The particles could even open the door to interstellar travel if they unlock access to other dimensions."
Jerome turned and smiled. "I like the way you think. I always have. No matter what the application, those particles will easily increase Quinn Corp's worth ten-fold. If you find them, how do you propose to get them?"
Thomas stammered as though caught off guard. "We'd need a spaceship…," he said after a moment.
Jerome sat and eyed his son carefully. "Is this like that solar sail you once told me about?"
He remembered a day when his teenaged son brought a set of crudely drawn blueprints to his office and dropped them right on top of a stack of papers in the center of the great mahogany desk.
Jerome had looked up from the computer. "What's this?" Several investors had recently pulled out of Quinn Corp when earnings did not come in as high as expected. In spite of Jerome's hard work to recover his losses he saw the boy was anxious to show off the blueprints.
"Plans for a heliogyro." Thomas had proudly pointed to the top sheet of the plans. The drawing looked a little like a flower constructed of steel beams and aluminum foil.
"What's a heliogyro?" Jerome Quinn inclined his head as he studied the plans, relieved to think about something other than investors.
Fifteen-year-old Thomas Quinn had grown tall, but remained rail-thin. "A heliogyro is a spaceship. You might call it a sailing ship to the planets. The crew quarters are in this ball in the center." He pointed to the picture. Then he pointed to the 'petals' of the flower. "These are giant reflectors made of spun aluminum mounted to a quinitite frame." He referred to the lightweight plastic with a crystalline structure that had revolutionized the computer industry and made Jerome a fortune. "Sunlight could push this ship all the way out to Pluto. When the crew was ready to return, it would just need to slingshot around the last planet in its voyage, adjust the sails, and it would be homeward bound. Sunlight also makes the ship spin like a giant pinwheel, so the crew would have simulated gravity."
"Sunlight?" Jerome had rubbed the bridge of his nose. "If it's a sailing ship, wouldn't it be pushed by the solar wind?"
Thomas had rolled his eyes. The mannerism irritated his father then—it still did, for that matter. "The solar wind's just charged particles, it doesn't produce enough energy to move the ship."
Jerome folded his arms across his chest, not appreciating Thomas's tone. Thomas stood his ground, well aware that an employee would have been dismissed by now. "If it's propelled by sunlight, I'm guessing this thing wouldn't go very fast."
"Theoretically, it could get to Mars in about six months … to Jupiter, about a year after that … beyond that, it depends on planetary alignments, but with gravitational assist from Jupiter, the ship could make it to Saturn in as little as six more months…."
Jerome remembered snorting and shaking his head. "I applaud your imagination, son, but it all sounds like science fiction."
"No, it's not. The Planetary Society launched LightSail 3 in 2024, but it had problems because of heat absorption. Carnegie Mellon University built a nanosatellite using an improved design back in 2028, but it was expensive because they used Mylar for the sails. Your quinitite allows us to use fine aluminum fiber which we can produce cheaply in our lunar factory—the quinitite in the frame would help the craft dissipate heat," said Thomas, hopefully.
"How much would it cost?" For a moment, Jerome had been caught up in Thomas's dream.
"I think we could build this ship for about ten billion dollars." Jerome remembered how proud Thomas l ooked that he'd completed a financial analysis despite his distaste in financial matters.
Jerome Quinn whistled long and low, then shook his head again. "That's hardly cheap, son."
"But it's only a fraction of your fortune, dad," pleaded Thomas.
"What would I get in return?" Jerome Quinn narrowed his gaze at his son. He needed to get him to see the practical side of the equation. "Ten billion dollars is too much just to throw away. You've got to tell me how I'll benefit from this."
In the present day, Jerome looked down at the report about the particles. Particles that could travel through time. Particles that could be used to build new radiation-free weapons. Particles that could unlock interstellar travel.
"The solar sail?" asked Thomas. "Yes, I've improved the design over the years. Just give the word."
Jerome held up his hand. "Start by finding those particles. If they exist, give me a budget for the ship."
Thomas nodded, dumbstruck.
Jerome Quinn reached over and terminated the connection, then sat back and smiled, pleased at the prospect of new growth for his company and pleased that his son's dream might become real.
Chapter 1: The Very Large Array
John O'Connell watched an old science fiction show about a starship that traveled to and explored alien worlds. He loved shows like that, but they were harder to find as the years wore on. People just weren't as interested in exploring space as they used to be. As the show finished, he sat back, adjusted his thick glasses and closed the window to the streaming site. It was time to check the status of the Very Large Array telescope antennas.
The VLA—as the telescope was known—was on the plains of San Augustin, about fifty miles away from the control room where John sat. Old antennas painted varying shades of white marred by black graffiti stretched out across the landscape like giant flowers blossoming from the desert. Even though funding for new paint had been cut years ago, the sight was still awe-inspiring. Though John preferred to work at the array site, he was in the Array Operation's Center in Socorro, New Mexico within easy walking distance of his faded adobe house.
The VLA collected data from the planet Saturn. The antennas functioned as expected. John collected the data for an observer he neither knew, nor really cared about. The name Alonzo Thomas meant nothing to him. John was more concerned about his job. In spite of the fact that the VLA was a proven workhorse telescope, Congress threatened to close the doors. The money, they said, could be used better elsewhere. John wasn't sure what he would do with his life if the VLA were shut down.
He looked at his watch and yawned. The observations he took wouldn't be finished for another two hours. Time, he decided, to surf the Internet and see what was happening in the world. He lifted a tattered blue Cassini 2 baseball cap from his head, brushed back an errant strand of sandy blond hair, and replaced the cap while adjusting his position in front of the computer terminal. He went to one of his favorite news sites and read about the state of Middle Eastern relations.
"The U.S.S. Daniel B. Sherman under the command of Captain Natalie Freeman has been ordered to the Persian Gulf," began the article that appeared on the screen. "Given Freeman's success handling the Jordanian crisis, hopes are high that she will negotiate a trade settlement and bring more oil to the United States."
The voice of the President of the United States, Oscar Van der Wald, sounded from the computer's speakers: "Iraq has been a valuable ally ever since their liberation earlier this century. We wish to stay on good terms with the new administration while negotiating better oil prices. I can think of no one more qualified for the job than Captain Freeman."
John folded his arms, growing tired of the web. Rarely, if ever, was there any actual news. Rather, all he saw were opinions of people who knew as little as he did. He stood, stretched, then walked over to the coffee maker and retrieved an old white mug. Sipping overdone coffee, he stared out the windows at the small town of Socorro. While the day itself was lovely with fluffy gray-white clouds hanging in a brilliant blue sky, he couldn't help but wonder if he would ever get out of the little town. Beyond the grassy field, just outside the window, stood his small adobe house. He sighed, wondering how he could keep paying rent on an operator's salary. Again, he looked at his watch. With some relief, he realized forty minutes had passed.
He returned to his terminal and brought up a visual display of the radio signal from Saturn. He looked at the image, blinked twice, then tried adjusting the monitor settings.
"Hey, Alan!" he called to the site's programmer working at a nearby console. "Can you take a look at this thing? I'm getting some kind of double image."
Alan Jones looked over and tugged on his long, dark beard. The computer showed a bright red, radio-active planet surrounded by dull, blue, radio-quiet rings. Next to Saturn, in the ring plane, hung a bright yellow ball. "That's not a double image. It looks more like some other object."
John snorted. "What kind of object is it, though?" He looked at the color scale. "That thing's got the radio emission of Jupiter. It's gotta be a glitch—some kind of signal creeping in from somewhere, or old data."
Alan sat back and smirked. "You can't superimpose old data on a real-time display like that."
"Then how do you explain it?" demanded John.
"Supernova," said Alan. "Or some previously undiscovered galaxy. Maybe they'll name it after you."
"Get real. And get over here and look at this thing, will ya? I don't want to call the boss in here for some kind of glitch."
"Whatever." Alan took his time finishing the task that John had interrupted, then sulked over and plunked down in the operator's chair. Lithe, pale fingers tapped on the keyboard for some minutes. At last, he looked up at John. "Whatever you're seeing is real. There are no programs running, other than the autocorrelator that's giving you the display. That thing's really in the sky."
John removed his baseball cap and scratched his head. "I better get Jack in here to take a look at this." He referred to his boss, the Supervisor of Observing Support. "We're recording all this data, aren't we?"
"Does President Van der Wald get hair transplants?"
John grimaced, then picked up the phone. A few minutes later, Jack Spear stepped into the control room. "Whatcha' got?"
John pointed at the bright object on the screen. Spear scratched his chin, then walked over to a bookshelf and picked up a copy of The Astronomical Almanac. He rifled the pages a few times until he found what he was looking for. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say that hot spot was Titan."
"You mean Saturn's big moon?" John's brow furrowed "So, do you think it's a glitch or a discovery?"
Jack sat down at the console and called up the instrument settings. "Hard to say. This is a really unusual frequency for planetary observation. There's really no archival data to compare it to. Who are you taking these observations for?"
John rifled through notes on a clipboard. "Some guy named Alonzo Thomas. He's with a private company that bought time on the telescope."
"Better grab a few extra minutes on Saturn—my authority," said Spear. "I think I've heard of Alonzo Thomas. He's a real hotshot scientist at Quinn Corp. He'll be ecstatic if this is a discovery, but there'll be hell to pay if it's a glitch and we missed something because we stopped observing." Spear stood up, looked at the screen one last time, then returned to his office. John sat down in the vacated chair, removed his thick glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose, thinking he had been working too hard.
The next day, Jerome Quinn met with several department managers when an image of Saturn appeared in his computer's message window. Next to Saturn, a bright, ball glowed alongside the word 'Eureka!' Quinn discreetly cleared the image, then brought the meeting to a close. The managers shuffled papers into their briefcases and left the office.
As soon as the door latched, Jerome brought up the message window and called his son. Thomas Quinn beamed happily.
"You found something?" Jerome's eyes narrowed as he studied his son's face.
Thomas vanished from the screen, replaced by Saturn. "The brightly glowing ball next to Saturn is its moon Titan. The moon is literally blanketed in chronotons."
"Chronotons?" Jerome shook his head.
"My name for the time particles," explained Thomas.
Jerome nodded thoughtfully and turned his chair, so he faced the window as his son reappeared on the computer screen. "Have you looked into the idea of constructing a solar sailboat?"
"I've drawn up a complete set of plans and run them by the engineering department for review," reported Thomas. "We can start construction at the factory on the moon as soon as you give the word."
"The word is given." Jerome stood and stepped up to the window. "I should make an announcement to the press—let them know about the ship we're building."
"I thought you wanted to keep this project a secret."
"I want to keep the time particles—the chronotons—a secret," corrected Jerome. "People are going to notice a giant solar sailing ship when it's launched into lunar orbit. Our competitors on the Moon will, at least. We need to let them know what we're doing."
"Aren't you afraid that our competitors will try to race us to Titan?"
Jerome gave a curt nod. "Come up with a cover story, something plausible but not too interesting to our competitors."
Thomas's eyes went wide as though he'd just been presented with a math problem beyond his abilities. "Won't our competitors be suspicious?"
"Of course they will." Jerome returned to the chair. "The idea is simply to get them looking in the wrong direction. You have the plans for the ship and you know what we're looking for. They'll waste time confirming our discovery, then waste more time trying to figure out what we really discovered. By then, you should be well on your way."
Thomas nodded. His glee had dissolved and he now wore a deep frown as though faced with more responsibilities than he'd ever imagined. "I'll need a crew for the ship. It's going to take time to locate the best people and train them."
"You're in charge of that, too." Jerome sat back, folded his arms, and studied his son's face. "I trust you to see this mission through. You've built an alias to conduct the observations. I want you to continue using that alias as you head this project. Can you do that?"
Thomas swallowed hard. "I'll do my best, sir."
John O'Connell walked from his house to work, arriving early for his two o'clock shift. He took over from a bleary-eyed woman named Neriah Smith. According to the staff schedule, she'd been on duty since four in the morning. "You look beat," said John.
"So would you after ten hours on duty."
"You should go home and get some sleep."
She sighed, then stood and yawned. She was a little too short and a little too heavy to be what most people called beautiful, but John still found her to be an attractive woman. As she collected her belongings, he sat down at the terminal and logged in, then pulled up the observing roster and noted routine stellar observations were scheduled—calibration data for a new telescope being built somewhere else. He started the prescribed observing routine, then surfed the Internet for the day's news.
Neriah mumbled a goodbye and left. After the door closed, Alan Jones looked up from his computer console. "You know, you should ask her out on a date sometime."
"You should mind your own business," retorted John, not looking up from his console. "Besides, I did ask her out once."
"Turned you down, did she?" asked Alan with a lilt in his voice.
John just shook his head. There wasn't anything of interest on the news site and he nearly moved on when a link flashed. It said something about a new space mission being announced. He selected the link and a live video in progress streamed onto the screen. A man and a teenage boy stood behind a podium at a large house. John guessed it must be in California given the orange trees and the time stamp that said a few minutes after one o'clock—an hour before New Mexico's time. The caption identified the two as Jerome Quinn, owner of Quinn Corp, and his son Henry.
"It is our hope that the Aristarchus project will usher in a new era of space exploration," explained the elder Quinn while his son looked on. "Quinn Corp was one of the first companies to build manufacturing facilities on the Moon. Important as our lunar facilities are, we recognize that the Moon's resources are not unlimited. The time has come, therefore, for us to push outward, to see what other resources are available. To do that, we have devised plans for a space vessel that will use sunlight to sail to Jupiter and then on to Saturn—the first manned mission to the outer planets."
John blinked, remembering Quinn Corp's connection to the unusual observation of Titan, two days before. He looked up. Alan Jones stood, peering over his shoulder at the news broadcast.
"Do you think this has anything to do with our Saturn observations?" asked John.
Alan shrugged. "It would make sense. Spear said we'd never observed Saturn at that particular frequency before."
O'Connell nodded. "They were looking for something."
"And they found it," said Jones.
"O'Connell," called Jack Spear, poking his head through the doors of the control room before Alan could speculate further. "I have a phone call for you in my office."
"Can't you just transfer it here?" John pointed to the phone next to his computer console.
Spear shook his head. "They say it's confidential." The observing supervisor ducked his head back through the doors.
"So, how do you rate confidential phone calls?" asked Alan.
"It's gotta be Neriah," teased John. "She's probably calling to say she's sorry we didn't keep going out and she wants to go to dinner tonight."
"Yeah, right." Alan smirked as he sat down in the operator's chair, taking over while John was away from his post.
Stepping down the corridor to Spear's office, John wondered who really was on the phone. He dreaded a call a bout his elderly mother in Nebraska who was in poor health. When he arrived at Spear's small office, the supervisor handed him the phone, then ducked out of the room.
"Hello," said John, nervously.
"Hello," came a voice at the other end of the line. "I'm with Quinn Corp's Aristarchus project. Have you heard about us?" The voice on the other end of the line had a slight quaver, as though the speaker wasn't used to spending time on the phone.
"Just now. The announcement's just been on the news."
"Good," said the speaker. "I'm the project engineer. I'd like to schedule a meeting with you. I'm looking for some equipment operators and I believe your VLA experience would suit you well for the position I want to fill."
"I like my job here," said John.
"You know as well as I do that the VLA's days are numbered," said the quavering voice.
"Who are you?"
"My name's Alonzo Thomas. I'm Pilot Manager of the Aristarchus as well as the project engineer."
Thomas Quinn flew home for the weekend. He walked around the grounds of the family home allowing memories to wash over him. Birds chirped in the distance. The hundred acres of grass surrounding the house were trimmed to perfection. Many of the fruit trees were in bloom, causing Thomas's nose to run. Nevertheless, spring signaled a new hope.
His brother Henry never seemed to appreciate nature. He remembered a time when they were both young children. Henry sat in front of a wall-sized video screen, playing a computer game. Henry's warrior lunged and stabbed a monster through the heart, then swung around and sliced another monster in the leg, disabling it.
"Not bad." Thomas had grudgingly admired his little brother's skill.
"Yeah." Henry shrugged. He dropped the keyboard to the floor. "But it's kind of boring. The characters behave the same way each time."
"You know," Thomas's eyebrows came together, "I think we could reprogram the game, so the characters are a little more lifelike."
"Can you really?" Henry's eyes had grown wide.
"Sure." Thomas shrugged. "Quinn Corp owns the company that makes the game. Shouldn't be too hard to find the source code and change the character stats." Thomas had taken the keyboard from his younger brother and searched for the appropriate files. He didn't know then that he would use skills from his youth when building a new persona.
He encountered his father on the path. "We're making good progress. We're almost ready to start manufacturing the quinitite frame for the solar sail. I'll be leaving for the Moon on Monday."
His father quirked a smile. "Seems fitting."
"I've also been designing some bottles to harvest the chronotons—the time particles—for study."
"Chronoton is too generic a name. I think we should refer to these particles as Quinnium."
Thomas turned and looked at his father with genuine confusion. "You want to brand the time particles? I understand quinitite. That's based on a manufacturing process, but as far as we can tell chronotons are natural particles."
Jerome smiled wryly at him, then shuffled down the path a short distance and sat on a concrete bench under a blossoming orange tree. "While I think it's important that we give them a name that ties them to the company, it'll also obscure what they are, assuming any corporate spies see our internal memos or tap into our communications."
Thomas shuffled his feet and sniffed. He was less interested in corporate machinations and more interested in the chronotons—the Quinnium. Since he'd discovered them, he'd devised even more possible applications for the particles. Doing calculations on their energy output, he realized they could be a new power source, possibly better than oil. He told his father.
Jerome squeezed his son's shoulder. "I think you see the need for discretion." They continued down the path together. "Be careful," whispered Jerome.
The adventure continues in The Solar Sea
David Lee Summers © 2013