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Thomas Quinn was nine years old when he went to his father, the trillionaire technology magnate and said, “It’s been over a hundred years since the Apollo missions and humans still haven’t gone farther than Mars. Even that was only two missions. Why is that?”

“It’s a matter of practicality, son,” said Jerome Quinn. He was an imposing man – tall and muscular. While many men of his social standing jogged or played tennis to stay fit, Jerome Quinn boxed.

“What’s practicality mean?” asked Thomas, a slim wisp of a boy who liked to lay atop grassy mounds on his father’s estate late at night looking up at the stars more than he liked to 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 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,” said the father.

“What if I could find a way for a spaceship to earn money?” pressed the boy.

Jerome threw back his head and laughed even louder. “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 looked down at his son with good humor in his eyes. “I’m sure you will, son. Now run along and play. I’ve got work to do.”

Thomas turned and sulked to the door. He looked over his shoulder as though he was going to say something, but seeing his father already back at work, he sighed, thrust his hands in his pockets and continued through the door.

He wound his way through the corridors until he arrived in the den. His brother, 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,” said Thomas grudgingly admiring 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’ eyebrows came together. “I think we could reprogram the game so the characters are a little more lifelike.”

“Can you really?” Henry’s eyes grew 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 took the keyboard from his younger brother and began looking for the appropriate files. As he thought about the ways he could make the characters in Henry’s game more realistic, he began to see a way he could get his father to take his ideas more seriously.

* * *

Thomas Quinn was 15 years old when he brought a set of crudely drawn blueprints to his father. He dropped them right on top of a stack of papers in the center of the great, mahogany desk.

Jerome—a little grayer; muscle beginning to turn to fat—looked up from the computer. “What’s this?” he harrumphed. Several investors had recently pulled out of Quinn Corp when earnings did not come in as high as expected. Jerome was working hard to recover his losses and did not appreciate interruptions.

“Plans for a heliogyro,” announced Thomas proudly as he 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?” asked Jerome Quinn, intrigued by his son’s ingenuity in spite of his own financial trouble.

Thomas Quinn, who’d grown taller, though he was still a thin wisp of a boy, explained: “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 said, pointing to the picture. Then he pointed to the “petals” of the flower. “These are giant reflectors made of aluminized quinitite.” He referred to the plastic-like substance his father had invented that had revolutionized the computer industry. “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 rubbed the bridge of his nose. “If it’s a sailing ship, wouldn’t it be pushed by the solar wind?”

Thomas rolled his eyes, exasperated at his father’s ignorance. “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 his son’s tone. In fact, if Thomas had been an employee, he’d have been dismissed by now. “If it’s propelled by sunlight, I’m guessing this thing wouldn’t go very fast, would it?”

“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…”

Thomas’ father’s eyes went wide and his hands dropped to his knees. “I applaud your imagination, son, but it all sounds like science fiction.”

“No, it’s not. The Planetary Society launched Cosmos II in 2010, but it had problems because of heat absorption. Carnegie Mellon University built a nanosatellite using an improved design back in 2017, but it was expensive because they used aluminized Mylar for the sails. Your quinitite is vastly cheaper to produce—and better for the job, I might add. It doesn’t absorb heat as badly as other plastics,” said Thomas, hopefully.

“How much would it cost?” asked Jerome, momentarily caught by his son’s dream.

“I think we could build this ship for about ten billion dollars,” said Thomas, proud that he’d performed a cost analysis in spite of his distaste for 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?” asked Jerome Quinn, darkly. “Ten billion dollars is too much just to throw away. You’ve got to tell me how I’ll benefit from this.”

“I don’t know.” Thomas thrust his hands into his pockets. When his father said nothing further, he sighed and began collecting up the plans. He caught sight of one particular paper, and his frown momentarily flashed into a grin. “Who’s Thomas Alonzo?” he asked, doing his best to sound nonchalant.

“Company business,” muttered Jerome, already looking back at the computer.

“Yeah, but—” Thomas rolled up the plans and struggled to return them to a cardboard tube “—his first and last names are the same as my first and middle names. I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“Promising employee,” explained Jerome, tersely. “He’s been coming up with some interesting ideas. Not all of them work, but those that do, save us money. I’ve been thinking about promoting him.” Jerome turned and picked up the sheaf of papers. Thumbing through, he came to a photo. He looked up at his son as though seeing him for the first time. “You know, he even looks a little like you—something in the eyes. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.” Jerome winked.

Thomas rolled his eyes, then made sure he had all of his papers and stepped into the hallway. He began whistling to himself as he returned to his room.

* * *

Two years later, Thomas ran into his brother’s bedroom, waving a sheaf of papers. “I got accepted into MIT!”

Without looking up from the video game he was playing, Henry Quinn shook his head. “Dad’s gonna go ballistic,” he said. “He wants you to go to Harvard so you can get degrees in both business and science.”

“Harvard’s good and all,” said Thomas with a shrug, “but I don’t want a business degree.”

“Suit yourself,” said Henry with the faintest suggestion of a shrug. “Dad already told us the deal—no business degree, no seat on the board.”

“I don’t care about the board of directors.” Thomas’ shoulders slumped.

“You’ll be lucky if you even get a back corner office somewhere. Dad may have a degree in materials engineering, but he’s always said science is nothing without marketing.”

“I don’t care.” Thomas straightened his shoulders. “All those stupid meetings and all that publicity, it just distracts people from doing anything real – anything productive.”

Henry shook his head and sighed as the warrior character he’d been playing died a horrible death on the screen. He turned around. “That just means I’ll get the lion’s share of the inheritance.”

“You can have the money.” Thomas sighed. He looked up at the screen. “You’re still playing that game I hacked for you?”

“Yeah, it’s great,” said Henry. “The characters are so much like real people, I never get bored.” He turned and faced his brother. “You know, you should show dad some of the computer stuff you do. He’d probably take a lot more interest in that than all the space stuff you show him.”

“Computers are just tools.” Thomas stepped over to the window and looked out. “When you know them as well as I do, you know you can only trust them so far. The real adventure’s out there.”

“In the yard?” asked Henry.

Thomas rubbed the bridge of his nose and Henry smiled. The gesture was reminiscent of their father. “I’m talking about the sky,” said Thomas, irritably. “I’m talking about space.”

“What is it with you and space anyway? It’s just a bunch of nothing that can get you killed real fast.”

“It’s not the nothing,” said Thomas. “It’s the something—the places we haven’t been to—six whole planets in our solar system humans haven’t seen with their own eyes—more dwarf planets and moons than I can even name…”

“And if anyone could name them, it would be you,” quipped Henry.

“I’ll find a way.” He looked at his watch and realized it was time to leave for the small municipal airport nearby. His father was paying for flying lessons and he nearly had his license. He left his brother’s room and thought about Thomas Alonzo. He was glad his father was considering a promotion. That meant Alonzo would have greater access to Quinn Corp files.

* * *

Two years later, Thomas Quinn excelled as one of MIT’s top physics students. He carried a stack of homework to his dorm room and set it aside while he logged into his computer and called up his email. When finished, he called up Thomas Alonzo’s account. There was a message from Quinn Corp’s facility on the Moon asking him to look at some data. It seemed they had discovered a new particle and wanted Alonzo’s opinions. He looked at the data, then reached over and grabbed his general relativity text. As he scribbled notes and made calculations, his heart began to race and his eyes grew wide.

* * *

Jerome Quinn read the latest report from Thomas Alonzo with growing curiosity. He sent a message asking for a videoconference with Alonzo.

An hour later, Alonzo’s face appeared on Jerome Quinn’s computer. “You read the report?” he asked.

Jerome Quinn was struck once again by the similarities between the young scientist and his oldest son, who was off at college. It wasn’t that Alonzo and Thomas really looked alike, just something about their eyes and their mannerisms. He realized there might be a future for his son—even if he did devote his life to science rather than business. He turned his attention back to the book-sized report. “I’m still reading it,” he admitted. “Have the people on the moon really discovered particles that can move through time?”

“Not exactly…” Alonzo hesitated. “They’ve found particles that seem to jump into the fourth dimension: the dimension of time.”

Quinn waved the scientist’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.” Alonzo nodded. “Although, I’m not sure how controlled such a journey would be. The objects might just disappear from our reality completely.”

Again, Quinn 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?” Alonzo’s eyebrows came together.

Quinn nodded.

The scientist 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?” Quinn leaned in toward his computer monitor.

Again, Alonzo shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“What would you need to find out?”

Alonzo 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?”

Alonzo nodded. “It’s old, but it’s a good telescope for planetary work.”

“The VLA has performed surveys of the solar system, hasn’t it?” asked Quinn. “Can’t you use archival data; it would save us some money.”

Alonzo took a breath and let it out slowly. “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.” Quinn reached out to terminate the connection.

“Mr. Quinn,” interrupted Alonzo. “May I ask what you plan to do if we find more of the particles?”

Quinn inclined his head, regarding the scientist 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.”

Alonzo’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 Quinn stood and walked to the window, letting Alonzo 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. I’ll make sure you get a raise—stock options if you want them. 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 Alonzo, uncertainly. “The particles could even open the door to interstellar travel.”

Quinn turned and smiled. “I like the way you think. 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?”

Alonzo stammered as though caught off guard. “We’d need a spaceship…” he said after a moment.

Quinn sat and eyed Alonzo carefully. “My son told me about an idea he had for a spaceship once. He called it a solar sail. Have you heard of them?”

“Y … Yes,” stuttered Alonzo. “The idea’s been around for a while.”

“I want you to look into it, see if Quinn Corp has the resources to build one of those ships.”

Mute, Alonzo nodded.

Quinn reached over and terminated the connection, then sat back and folded his arms.

* * *

In his dorm room at MIT, Thomas Quinn stared wide-eyed at his computer screen. Hand shaking, he reached over and turned off the computer. He took a swig of the soda sitting on the desk, blinked a couple of times, then punched the sky and shouted, “Yes!”

Continue reading The Solar Sea

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