The Sirius Boundary
You don’t realize how dark space really is until you experience it…and how empty it makes you feel. This isolation sort of just seeps in like a sponge soaking in water. And the Sirius Boundary is the mother of darkness, at least as far as earth is concerned. Gage shuddered; tried not to.
Everyone crowded into the stock-room-turned-conference-cabin. These new Minkowski cruisers weren’t built for comfort; they were still experimental. And this little excursion required converting one to handle the crew of three as well as three members of the science team. Gage couldn’t remember ever feeling claustrophobic. After this trip, he wouldn’t be able to say that.
He wanted to be back at the Academy. They were too far from home; the sun was just another speck in space. He pressed his hands into his gut trying to get rid of the turmoil that bubbled up.
El sat calmly beside him. Leaning her elbows on the table, her red hair cascaded down her arm in the artificial gravity. Except for her, this was a bad trip anyway you looked at it. The Team Lead sat in the next seat. The Captain and crew stood or leaned against the bulkhead, eyes and minds obviously somewhere else. They didn’t want to be here anymore than he did.
“Listen up,” growled the Captain. He didn’t like acting as nursemaid to a bunch of science nerds.
The crew grew a bit stiffer, though their minds could have been light years away.
El cleared her throat. “It’s been said that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful, but because it is possible to find them. That’s why we’re all here. We’re headed to the Sirius Boundary. No one’s ever traveled this far before, because it was not possible.”
Gage’s stomach did a dive, and he forced back a moan. How could El say that and smile as if this was just an everyday affair to her?
“Now we can,” she continued. “We discovered dark matter back in the twentieth century by observing its gravitational impact on other objects, but no way existed to check it out. Now, with these cruisers, it’s possible to make the trip quickly. The Boundary is the closest dark matter to earth. It’s called the Sirius Boundary because, from Earth, it lies in the direction of the star Sirius. We believe dark matter is composed of a new kind of particle smaller than atoms and different from anything we’ve ever seen. Until the development of the Hulse-Taylor Filter and the Wolfe transform, we knew it had to be out here but couldn’t see it, hence the name dark. The filter modifies the spectrum and passes that changed digital data to the transform software that processes it and displays an image showing dark matter. It seems that the very essence of the bulk of the universe is different from what we and rocks and trees and Earth and the Sun are made of.”
“You don’t see it,” added Gage intent on speaking with a strong voice, “no one’s really seen it. Even with the filter and the transform, all we see is a computer simulation of its presence.”
A crewman, with his arms tightly crossed, who had been rocking side to side, stared at El. “So, as far as you all know, we could be jumping into a pool full of alligators.”
“Lots of things are intimidating,” said El in a consoling, matter-of-fact way, “until we learn more about them.”
“I can risk my life in war,” he argued. “A battle has a purpose. But way out here, we could die, and for what?”
“Knowledge has value,” said El calmly. “There’s no telling what we’ll learn. Someday, way out here will be home, and the galaxy will be our backyard. But it takes a first step. A child in bed might hear a rustling at the window and fear it’s a ghost or goblin until he gets up, opens the curtain, and realizes it’s only a tree branch.”
The thought of jumping into this pool of alligators did nothing to lessen the tightness in Gage’s belly. El could say whatever she wanted, but dark matter is a far cry from a branch brushing a window.
"But, what is it?” asked the crewman deliberately.
Scrunching up her forehead she pinched her mouth with her fingers. “Well,” she said after a few seconds, “some say it’s the scaffolding on which the universe is built. We know its mass keeps everything from flying apart faster than it already is. It’s all just…there, enfolding us, holding us together. The stuff is ubiquitous. It’s squeezed into every nook in the Milky Way. With the filter and the transform, we see it everywhere we point the telescope.”
“What do you mean…it’s everywhere? Even here?” he moved his hands around the room.
“No,” she smiled. “When we point our telescopes up from the galactic plain, we see it just outside the galaxy. When we look into the Milky Way, sheets of it wind around clusters and stars like some black northern lights. Most of the universe is enveloped in dark matter. And the stuff doesn’t move. When we view the sky through our software, dark matter hides the stars and such beyond our local piece of space.” She thought a moment. “Think of it like a comforter you might wrap about yourself on a chilly evening. It’s nothing to fear. This is one of those deep things of science. And we’re here to find out what it is.”
When all the questions were asked, the crew left to prepare for arrival at the Boundary. The Team Lead went with the Captain.
Alone in the cabin, El turned to Gage. “I think that went well.”
Gage pushed his fists into his gut to relieve its rippling distress. “If you say so.” He stared into her calm, green eyes. “Doesn’t it bother you at all, being this far from Earth…and so close to this stuff we know so little about?”
Clutching his hand, she got one of those serious looks on her face. “Sure. I think everyone on the cruiser feels it. I’ve seen the crew looking for work, even if it doesn’t need to be done.” She shrugged. “If all I did was dwell on where we are…” She shuddered and leaned closer. “And it helps when I think about us,” she whispered.
El was good at compartmentalizing her life…science here, daily life there, recreation here, Gage there…and her spiritual life. Everything had its place. She always had a grip on her feelings; and, right now, he wished he could stuff his fears in a box the way El did and close the drawer. But no matter how hard he tried, it wouldn’t shut. Instead, they played in his gut like burrowing critters--digging, rolling, turning. The clammy feeling, working its way out, didn’t help.
She raised his hand and held it gently in both of hers. They were warm and, at least to the touch, soothing. But the digging and diving in his stomach didn’t change.
“What’s wrong, Gage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this anxious.”
“Doesn’t happen often.” He pulled his hand away and looked up. He didn’t want to talk about it. Science was his driver now, not these emotions. But this was El. Surely, he could discuss it with her.
She waited…rested a hand gently on his shoulder.
“I get these feelings,” he said, turning back to her. “Not all the time. Just sometimes…before something really bad happens.”
A smile crept into the corners of her mouth.
“I know, I know,” he said. “It’s not rational. It’s facts that should matter here, not feelings.” He grimaced. “But experience with my gut tells me something else.”
El’s mouth transformed into a complete smile.
Crossing his arms, he looked away. “I’m serious.”
“I’m not making fun of you,” said El taking his hand again. “It’s just that usually it’s me talking about feelings and faith.”
“Wait,” quipped Gage quickly, “this has nothing to do with faith.” While God-based religion had become relatively obsolete in recent years, El’s religious streak was rather quaint, in a good way. But he didn’t want it attributed to him.
“If you say so,” she chuckled.
Talking with her didn’t get rid of the burrowing in his belly, but it did help his attitude.
“So, what do you really think about dark matter?” he asked.
She looked at him askance. “I suppose you want my God answer?”
“Well, you know, I think everything points to God. Dark matter?...” She shrugged. “I assume He put it here for a reason. I kind of like the idea of a comforter.” She moved her arms as if wrapping herself in an unseen blanket. “Anyway, someday we’ll learn how God wants us to use it and what its real purpose is. In the meantime, I’m just satisfied investigating and waiting…especially with you.”
He forced a peevish grin. “As if God cares what happens on little old Earth.”
El poked him in the side. “Maybe you don’t recall studying the Cosmic Microwave Background. If we’re not important, why is the CMB centered on…little old earth?”
Yeah. Definitely charming. Didn’t agree on this God stuff, but he liked a little of it in El. Being with her might just make this expedition bearable. Still, it would be a whole lot better on Earth.
An hour later they were at their stations in Mission Control, anchored near the Sirius Boundary. Gage’s expertise was the software, including the Wolfe Transform. He would document all the tests. Taking the seat beside him, El pulled up the instrument control panel on her computer. She was responsible for the test instruments.
The Captain came in ignoring the science team. “Everything ready?” he asked the nearest crewman.
“Our part is, Sir.”
“Well, then, find out what they need,” he said, nodding toward Gage and El.
The soldier came and stood in front of them, waiting, watching.
On Gage’s computer screen with the software-generated picture, a deep, black, dead image stretched upward and downward as far as the camera could see, blocking background stars as it extended, like some infinite wall, into the plane of the Milky Way. The flood lights from the ship disappeared at the boundary without being impeded. The wall was just…black…in the darkest sense of the word. He had never seen anything like this. Gage stared from the computer back to the viewport and back to the monitor. He knew the boundary would be dark but had assumed it would have a texture when they got close…something to say that it was something.
Just a function of the computer transform, he told himself. But his stomach paid little attention.
His unfiltered screen displayed none of that black nothingness. All the stars shone in open space, like the ship could just continue on its merry way. But, something was there, something big, and right in front of them.
Gage pressed a button, and the wall-mounted display copied his screen. The Captain, the Team Lead…everyone…stared.
“Wow,” said the man in front of Gage. His mouth hung open as he gazed at the image.
Gage cringed. The Sirius Boundary hung down like some giant black guillotine removing any view of the galaxy behind it. Other stars disappeared randomly from the picture, blocked by different folds of dark matter.
“Behold, the Sirius Boundary,” said the Team Lead with a soft theatrical flair.
A nervous chuckle escaped Gage’s throat.
El glanced at him, her trance broken. “This isn’t funny,” she whispered.
With his brow furrowed in a question, the Captain cleared his throat and turned to the Team Lead. “When the boundary was displayed, the stars disappeared. This boundary stretches up as far as we can see; some of it must be light years from us. Yet, the stars disappeared immediately. That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s all a function of the transform. It programmatically removes stars beyond the edge of the dark matter, thus simulating something that blocks light. That’s the only way we can really see it.”
The crew gave slow nods of semi-understanding.
The Captain’s demeanor transformed back to his command role. “How do you want to proceed?” he grumbled, looking straight ahead.
The Team Lead scratched his chin. “Let’s…send in a probe with a camera, check out the density; do some close up analysis before we actually take a sample.”
While El began retesting the probe’s equipment, Gage pulled up a split screen. On the left was an image with the dark matter; on the right a view from the probe, showing the launch tube.
The Captain barked orders into the intercom. In less than a minute, the ten foot long cylindrical probe shone brightly in the left screen, illuminated by the flood lights. A starry view of space was on the right panel, as seen from the probe without the filter and transform.
Maneuvering the joysticks, Gage pointed the probe’s camera at the receding cruiser. Its sleek, shadowy outline, partially washed out by the flood light, slowly shifted into the right half of his screen. Panning back toward the dark matter, he turned on the recorder.
At twenty feet from the Boundary, the probe stopped. Still, it gave no indication that anything lay in front of it, except for a small gravitational tug.
When Gage invoked the probe’s filter and the transform, its panel went black. He rotated the camera till stars appeared, verifying that the blackness was due to the dark matter. When he turned the camera back toward the boundary, the screen was just black, no mottling, no movement, nothing. He shifted nervously. How could something be nothing, have no form? He pressed buttons on the ship’s camera controls and the left image zoomed in at a forty-five degree angle on the probe.
“Are we ready?” asked the Team Lead.
“Yes, sir,” came the nervous answers.
“Proceed at one foot per five seconds,” said the Captain.
The right panel was solid black as seen from the probe, with no visible change.
“Ten,” called the Captain.
The right panel remained deeply dark; the left showed the probe inching across the screen, bright and silvery against the black background.
Gage shifted nervously, eyes darting from one panel to the other.
Everything happened at once.
Captain: Conta… He was interrupted.
Intercom: Power lost!
El: Instrument control down!
Soldier: I can’t control it!
Team Lead: Gage?...El?
Crewmen cursed and complained to no one in particular as they tried to compensate for the problems.
On Gage’s computer screen, the right panel remained black but the connection light flicked to red. “Probe’s camera link lost!” The left panel still showed the probe, shrinking in size as it inserted itself into the dark matter. For the probe to disappear like that, the substance must be thick as mud. His hand jerked to the ship-camera’s control button and inhibited the filter and transform. Immediately the blackness disappeared and stars burst onto the screen. The probe still moved forward. But, as it crossed the now invisible boundary, the shell disappeared inch by inch, going away bit by bit.
The cabin was a frenzy of commands and yells, but Gage didn’t hear them. He just watched the probe slide forward, gradually vanishing, until the left panel displayed a clean and pristine star field.
“People,” yelled the Team Lead over the cacophony of sounds. “People…” The noise began to diminish.
Gage gasped. He realized he had been holding his breath. The critter in his gut began working its way up, and he forced it down.
“People,” continued the Team Lead. “What do we know?”
El shook her head and shrugged.
“Got video,” said Gage. He cleared his throat to get rid of the quivering in his voice. “But doubt it will show much more than we saw.”
A few other comments were no better.
“There are only two possibilities as I see it,” said the Captain leaning forward excitedly. “Either we have the essence a perfect cloaking material or the makings of a weapon beyond anything we’ve envisioned.”
This was the first time Gage had seen the Captain so animated.
The Team Lead closed his eyes and took a deep breath letting it out slowly. “Why would you think of weapons? We don’t know anything about it yet.”
Using military clichés, the Captain said, “As long as evil is exists, the possession of a weapon is the only reliable defense against an enemy similarly armed. We must be ever-vigilant.” He rocked back and forth struggling to contain his excitement. “This discovery will tip the balance in our favor. Good will continue, at least for now.”
The Team Lead gave a subtle shake of his shoulders. “We still have a lot more analysis to do.”
“Sure, sure,” said the Captain impatiently. “Go ahead, do all you want.”
The cruiser moved to a position that would give an edge-on view of the dark matter, and another probe was sent in. It disappeared just like the first. The edge-on image of the wall of dark matter showed absolutely no disruption.
Gage sat back staring at the screen. There should have been something…a puff of dark matter…a visible indication that it had crossed the boundary.
A probe with a maneuverable arm was launched, again to within twenty feet of the surface. As they extended the appendage into the wall, it too was hidden by the blackness. When they withdrew the arm, Gage gasped right along with everyone else. It pulled back without the portion that had been in the dark matter.
The Captain rocked toes to heels. “Bring it back!” He immediately left for the cargo hold.
Smiling like he carried some treasure, he returned with what was left of the arm.
No residue of any kind. A crewman moved his hand slowly through the air where the missing portion of the arm should have been, grabbing as if he expected to feel it. “Well, I’d say that ain’t a cloaking device.” He glanced at El. “And I don’t think it’s the kind of comforter I want to wrap myself in.”
Gage’s hands trembled as he ran them over the cut surface. Smoother than anything he had ever felt, as if the arm had been wiped away at the molecular level.
“Let’s try an explosive,” said the Captain, pacing back and forth in the small space.
With the ship moved away even further to avoid a splatter of the dark matter, another probe was launched, this one with incendiary material. A second one would film the explosion from a face-on position while the ship would film the edge-on view.
The Captain counted down. “Three…Two…One…FIRE!” The probe in the images disappeared in a cloud of disintegrating metal and tracer material. Face-on, the image showed an expanding mass of particles that spread out approaching the camera. The black surface remained unchanged around the cloud. From the edge-on view, the probe’s remains billowed up, down and out. But the dark wall just absorbed the particles that hit it.
In a matter of seconds, small pings sounded from the hull of the ship as pieces of the probe reached them. Quickly, both images cleared. The boundary surface showed no change.
El squeezed Gage’s shoulders with her fingers. A breath caught in his throat. This dark matter, whatever it was, was locked in place. It absorbed a concussion. It was there but not there… immovable, untouchable, and consuming everything but light. However far they were from the Boundary, it wasn’t far enough.
Everyone adjourned to the conference room where Gage replayed the films of the tests while El described what they had seen. The instruments had not returned any useful readings.
“Gentlemen,” said the Captain loudly and formally, “we have here a perfect weapon.” His face beamed from ear to ear.
“But Captain,” said the Team Lead, “if this dark matter destroys anything that enters it, how will you contain it?”
The Captain shooed off the comment with the back of his hand. “Just because you can’t figure it out doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
One of the crew moved meekly to El. “If this stuff is everywhere, why don’t we see stars blinking out, eaten the way it ate the probes? Stars are all moving relative to any point in space.”
She scrunched up her forehead. “Well…,” she said thoughtfully, “stars orbit the galactic core at different rates; a few are flung out of their orbits as highfliers; so, it seems we should have seen some blink out.”
Lots of ideas got shared; but El just sat, pinching her lips.
Gage had no opinion. His insides quivered and surged.
El dropped her hand to the table, and her forehead smoothed out. “Do you realize what this means? The implication is staggering. There is about five times more dark matter than normal stuff in the universe. It surrounds and connects galaxies. It’s distributed among the stars. It’s like…like a barrier around everything. It consumes normal matter…but not light, mind you…yet the only time we’ve seen it consume anything is here. It’s…” She stood and left.
Gage sat up straight. Maybe this was why his gut ached. “She’s right, you know. It seems we’re pretty much limited as to where we can go. And we’ve only begun to explore space around us. It has us shut in.”
“That’s a little too pessimistic.” The Team Lead took El’s seat. “It may be a weapon or it may not. In either case, discoveries like this change us. Splitting the atom ushered in a new world. Where will this take us? The Captain’s right about science; we can solve any problem.”
“Yeah,” grumbled Gage, pushing up from his chair and walking out after El. “We can solve anything that’s solvable.”
He found El in the team’s cabin. She sat profoundly quiet, staring at a document on her computer. He walked up behind her; but she remained silent, focused on the words.
“You’re right, you know,” he said. “This means space travel is essentially over.”
She turned her face up. Gage had never seen quite that expression before. A sardonic smile crossed her lips. “A lack of space travel is the least of our worries, I’d say.”
Gage’s stomach lurched and tightened. He didn’t like the look on her face or the sound of her voice. He glanced down at the book on her screen…the Bible. He raised his eyebrows. Right now we need science not fables. While a little of this appealed to him, too much was a problem.
“I can see the doubt on your face,” said El. “Just humor me. Read these passages with me. That’s all I ask.”
She pointed to the first.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“The word for overcome can also mean seize or take possession of. Dark matter has no impact on light.” She moved to the next passage and pointed.
The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark.
She moved to the next passage.
The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up.
“Now, look at this one.”
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.
“What if all this dark matter is here, locked in place, for some purpose…to be used in the future? What if it’s part of some plan? What if it is scaffolding, but not to hold the universe together?”
Gage’s gut felt as if it would burst.