“Verify: Preparations are complete?” Dr. Ethine said into her mic. Around the room, her compatriots manned their stations. The five of them each sat before a small viewscreen displaying information relevant to their responsibilities. The large viewscreen that covered the majority of the northern wall showed a live feed directly from the drone. For the moment, it showed only darkness.
“Verified: Ether cells are charged,” said Dr. Touran. His voice, like Dr. Ethine’s, echoed through the headsets worn by the rest of the team. “Awaiting verification: Backup photon panel functionality.”
“Verified: Sensors confirm steering system is in working order,” said Dr. Valenon. Dr. Ethine looked down at him from her seat on the highest level of the room. He sounded impatient. She couldn’t blame him. They have been preparing for this moment for years.
“Verified: Sensors confirm ether propulsion is in working order,” said Cpt. Oubide. His light Yusic accent colored his words. He would be piloting the drone today in the event that the A.I. failed to do its duty. A grand honor, presented to him by the High Chancellor herself, though of course he was in truth selected by a committee of scientists. His station was wider and more expansive than the rest of them, with twin joystick controls and a variety of buttons in place of a keyboard. “Awaiting verification: Camera functionality. The camera reads as on, but we won’t know for sure until we have something to view.”
“Verified,” says Dr. Ethine. Her next words practically skip out of her mouth. She has to reign them in, to prevent them from tripping over one another. “Fiction drive reads as functional.”
“Verified: Satellite doors functional and ready to open,” said Dr. Ciarne. Dr. Ethine couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the smile in his voice nonetheless. “Request: Open doors to complete verification process.”
“Request granted,” said Dr. Ethine. She felt a thrill travel up her skin at the thought. She kept her gaze forward, unwilling to look back behind, to where the High Chancellor and several members of her council sat behind a great window into a more comfortable room, accompanied by members of the media. This was a big day. No, that was an understatement. Today was monumental.
Today, they would attempt to prove — or disprove — Aulmann’s Border Theory. In it, Aulmann postulated that the the border to their universe could be reached, and indeed, breached, given access to the proper technology. Aulmann had passed on nearly sixty years ago, but his theory had remained strong in the scientific consciousness. The instruments of his time had discovered a limit to what they could perceive in the universe. Aulmann had suggested that perhaps it wasn’t the limitations of their tools, but of the universe itself. His theory conceived of the universe as a bubble, within which everything they knew existed.
Further technological advances had only served to cement the Border Theory as something to be explored. Nothing that had yet been developed had been able to detect what existed beyond Aulmann’s Border, or, in fact, detect what might compose the border itself. It seemed as though existence just came to an end. Aulmann had been convinced that something existed past that border. Dr. Ethine intended to find out what that might be.
Today’s mission would not be possible without the capacity to stream video instantaneously across any distance. Nor would it be possible without the advances in robotics and engineering that made their unmanned drone feasible. It certainly wouldn’t be possible without the development of ether as a viable power source, or relatively recent discovery that it could be stored in ether cells, to allow for extended space flight.
Before that, space flight using ether as an energy source had been restricted to the planet’s etheric aura, which extended only just beyond the borders of the atmosphere. Fossil fuels and photon power were the primary means of powering what space-faring vessels humankind possessed. The very satellite from which the drone would be launched was put into orbit utilizing the power of fossil fuel. It relied on photon panels for the majority of its energy. It had been created while the drone was in development.
It was the discovery of a second type of ether that truly made the day’s venture possible. Dubbed “violet ether,” this new type of energy was much scarcer than its counterpart. Without it, the fiction drive that would allow the drone to reach Aulmann’s Border would never have come into existence. Violet ether allowed vehicles it powered to reach incredible speeds. One of the first tests about which Dr. Ethine had read described the way the test vehicle had burned up in the planet’s atmosphere due to the unreal, seemingly fictional speed it had attained.
That wouldn’t be a problem in the vacuum of space.
The satellite’s bay doors slid open. Dr. Ethine imagined the sound of grinding metal, though there was none transmitted through the feed. The doors pointed away from the planet and the moons, showing only the vast blackness of space. Only the light of stars broke up the monotonous darkness. Dr. Ethine smiled. It had been reading about those very stars that had instigated her interest in science and exploration. In ancient times, it was believed that the stars were actually distant suns, locked in rotation around their own planets. Now it was known that they were actually their own sort of celestial bodies, formed primarily of activated ether.
“Verified: Camera functional,” said Cpt. Oubide. “Feed is live. Zero delay.”
“Verified: Photon panels functional,” said Dr. Touran. “Energy production from starlight negligible, but present.”
A smile spread across Dr. Ethine’s face. “Verify: Ready to launch?”
A chorus of four voices spoken in turn. “Verified.”
“Beginning launch procedure,” said Cpt. Oubide. His fingers danced across the buttons on the console in front of him.
The view of space shifted on the giant viewscreen as the drone detached from its mount. Dr. Ethine glanced behind her, unable to resist the urge any longer. The members of the media and the others who had been invited to watch from the observation room chattered behind the soundproof glass. The High Chancellor watched with rapt attention, obviously ignoring the man standing next to her, who was attempting to engage her in conversation.
What would they find at the end of the universe? Dr. Ethine did not know. Nobody did. That was what made today monumental. The fact that they would be discovering something nobody else knew. Would the drone press through into another universe? Would it crash against Aulmann’s border, unable to pass through? Would the drone simply loop around, appearing on the other side of the universe? Would they discover heaven, or hell, or God? Would it simply cease to exist? Or would something completely unknowable happen? Science and religion had put forth all of these as possibilities.
“Ether drive activated,” Cpt. Oubide said. This was his show, now, unless something malfunctioned. “Moving forward to exit the atmosphere.”
He pressed a series of buttons on his console. He did not take the joysticks in his hands. The A.I. could perform all of the calculations necessary to escape the planet’s pull far faster and more accurately than any of them. The drone pressed forward. With the bleak darkness of space as the only view, its movement was difficult to perceive without the displays on Dr. Ethine’s desk.
They sat in silence, though according to procedure, the doctors should have continued to report the status of the systems for which they were responsible. Still, this felt too important. Dr. Ethine herself didn’t want to break the quiet awe that had settled over the room.
“Atmosphere is now behind us,” Cpt. Oubide reported. “Request: Activate fiction drive?”
“Request granted,” Dr. Ethine whispered. She had no strength to bring her voice to something more. If it weren’t for the headsets, Cpt. Oubide would never have heard her.
“Activating fiction drive.”
Dr. Ethine would remember those words for the rest of her life.
The drone moved forward, achieving what scientific knowledge from only a decade ago would have labeled an impossible acceleration. Dr. Ethine marveled at the fact that the little ship didn’t dissolve under the stresses of that acceleration. When it reached its top speed, less than a minute later, the drone was travelling fast enough that they could actually perceive its movement relative to the stars. The little points of light, sometimes laced with auras of other colors, flew past like snowflakes on a highway.
“Report: Camera systems still functional,” said Dr. Ethine. Now that Cpt. Oubide was in charge of piloting, it was her charge to monitor the observation systems. “Seemingly zero delay.”
In theory, the ether-powered camera would never experience any delay in transmission, regardless of the distance. That theory, like others, would be put to the test today.
“How long until we reach Aulmann’s Border?” Dr. Ethine asked.
“Ah, it’s… it’s actually hard to say,” answered Dr. Valenon. “I hate to admit it, but our instruments aren’t built to track something of this speed. We didn’t anticipate just how fast the craft would go.”
“Oh,” Dr. Ethine said. She blinked. “Can you give an estimate?”
Dr. Valenon turned to look at her. “Honestly? A few minutes. Less than ten.”
Dr. Ethine swallowed. They hadn’t been able to properly test the upper speeds achievable by the fiction drive. To be honest, they had rushed a lot of aspects of this expedition, out of excitement and pressure from their sponsors. No wonder the first test craft had been incinerated within the planet’s atmosphere. “How… how are the power reserves?”
“Ether cells for regular propulsion are at 98%,” reported Dr. Touran. “Violet ether reserves are at 99.6%.” He shook his head. “How is that possible? Just the sheer amount of energy that should be required to accelerate something to this speed… I don’t understand.”
Dr. Touran, though he had not designed the fiction drive, had worked with the man who had. His amazement shook Dr. Ethine. She had the feeling, suddenly, that they were small children playing with something they didn’t understand.
Dr. Ethine hit a switch on her microphone, swapping over to a channel that the media wouldn’t hear. “Let’s keep the things we don’t understand between us, alright? We don’t want the media on that.” She switched back to the other channel.
Stars whipped past the camera, though further out from the planet, the distance between them had grown. Dr. Ethine blinked. In the center of the screen, there seemed to be a faint distortion. She checked the data streaming to her personal screen. “Readings from the camera seem to be normal. Does anyone else see that distortion?”
“Yes,” said Cpt. Oubide. “I thought it was my eyes, from staring at the blackness for so long.”
“I see it, too,” said Dr. Valenon. “Perhaps it’s due to the camera’s distance from us? I can safely say that this technology has never been tested at this distance.”
Dr. Ethine lifted her glasses to rub at her eyes. When she brought her attention back to the camera feed, the distortion had become more obviously. In a roughly circular shape at the center of the screen, a color other than black was blooming. It rippled and seemed to grow as the drone drew closer. “Could that be… Is that Aulmann’s Border?”
“Maybe,” said Dr. Ciarne. He was, less Cpt. Oubide, the youngest one in the room. “I mean, I would bet that it is. I didn’t think we could see it with the naked eye, though.”
“Well, we are observing through a camera,” said Dr. Valenon. “That might have some impact on our perception.”
Dr. Ethine knew he was scrambling for a possible answer. They all were. Cameras had never detected Aulmann’s Border before. Why now?
“Can we cut the drive?” Dr. Ethine asked. A sudden fear of the theory that the border would prove to be solid welled up within her.
“We can,” said Cpt. Oubide. “Confirm command?”
“Confirmed,” said Dr. Ethine.
Cpt. Oubide pressed a single red key on his console. The ship did not seem to slow. Right. There was little or no friction to cause it to do so. In front of it, a rippling rainbow, with red the most prevalent, colored what had once been the black darkness of space.
“How long until we reach the border?” Dr. Ethine said, her words rushed. Her mind was frozen between two courses of action: press forward, or use the fiction drive to halt the ship.
“I think…” Dr. Valenon hesitated. His eyes scanned his personal screen frantically. “Not long. Less than a minute.”
He was right. The drone met what must have been the border. A brief, almost mystical myriad of colors flashed across the camera, like the lights that sometimes lit the skies at the planet’s poles. Then everything turned to red. A red both bright and dark, which flooded the room with bloody light from the viewscreen. Dr. Ethine’s mouth fell open.
The camera stopped broadcasting. In fact, all data streaming to them from the drone ceased coming in. Dr. Ethine realized that she had risen from her chair, leaning forward in an attempt to better see the viewscreen, though of course the few inches her movement gained her showed her nothing more. She sat down, hard, and tried to process some of what she had seen.
She would have a lot of questions to answer today, from the High Chancellor and from the media, not to mention other experts in her field. She had no idea how she would answer many of them, not when her mind was already moving on to the next experiment.