Etherspace, often simply called the ether, is an extradimensional existence where things don't quite work the same. But with a little techno-sorcery, the Coalition can make it work for getting around the World.
The realm of etherspace (or simply the ether to the uninitiated) is one not at all understood. It is a place of turbulence and unpredictability, wracked with storms of ethereal substance. Danger and disaster are never far off. The usage of etherspace dates to the early days of Tarsin exploration. Then, it was a calm, smooth place, unbeset by tempestuous activity. Legend has it that the moment the first ship entered it, a ripple was set cascading through the realm, and more ripples were added as more ships entered it. Before long, it was realized that utilizing this fast method of travel came at a heavy price.
Attempting to navigate the growing chaos proved futile, and early explorers simply let the ether throw them where it would before they exited it. These journeys took a harsh toll, and many ships did not survive the waves of energy they had to traverse, rather torn apart and never seen again. As etherspace technology was refined, smart captains figured out how to influence the currents and tides of this tempestuous realm to at least make their trip a little easier. Now ships were able to choose the direction they went in, and if they were lucky, manage to emerge in the same general area for repeated voyages.
The legend continues: it was in this time that the Tarsins began to find other evidence of life in the galaxy. Dead planets were chanced upon, skeletons of ancient civilizations left unburied. And amongst these bones they discovered something that would change space travel forever: a great beacon, which sliced through the stormy chaos of the realm and provided a guiding light to follow. Through years of toil and tears, the Tarsins managed to bring the beacon to their home world, where they set it up as an all-seeing lighthouse for ships in the ether. It was anchored in reality, but was also present in the other dimension; the first fixed point navigators had to use.
More years passed by, and the clever Tarsins figured out how to make more beacons, and installed them on all their fledgling colonies. All beacons pointed to Tarsis, for ease of travel. Soon enough, the beacons were able to not only guide ships, but be used for communication as well. By this time, the ether was all but unnavigable without beacons and the acquired knowledge the Tarsins had. Whatever other races discovered the realm were never able to “master” it, as much as such a place could be mastered.
Then came the day the Tarsins fought their first foe in the stars, a nameless race which never bothered with any attempts at peace, a chapter of history now forgotten. The enemy managed to break into the ether and follow the central beacon straight to Tarsis, where they fortunately met their doom. It was decided to dismantle the central beacon system, and replace it with a system where every beacon was equal to the next, so that no one could easily find Tarsis again. After they had won, they came upon the Zaian, who offered them assistance. And from here, what is now known as the Old Coalition was born, another legend whose full scope will forever be unknown.
A Great Cataclysm
(See main page, The Beacon Cataclysm.)
The beacon cataclysm, another story told elsewhere, sent a massive shockwave throughout the ether, un-anchoring many beacons and throwing the realm completely into mayhem; within a year, it was consumed by storm. Not that this mattered, by that point the cataclysm had hit every world connected to the network so hard that some planets were thrown centuries or more backwards in terms of technological progress. It took well over a thousand years for this wave to subside, and by then, Tarsis had been re-united, and was ready to set about searching for the lost beacons.
In the modern age, most beacons have been recovered, but there are still some not accounted for, which lure adventurers and treasure-hunters into the unknown. Etherpace technology in general is nearly a lost art. While the engines can still be built, and the technique of navigating the ether is still known, beacons are but relics, each one literally irreplaceable. The Zaian are unable to produce anything on the subject from their great Archive. As a result, the Imperial-era Coalition is a web of connected systems focused around what beacons are there. Vast dead zones lurk around them; the greatest of them being the Lost Realm, which is almost entirely devoid of navigational aid. How the Sarthîm thrive is a mystery, but it has been theorized they have their own beacons set up, hidden from their Tarsin cousins.
How It Actually Works
In basic terms, the ether time works differently than reality's time. Ships crack open a temporary rift to etherspace, and fly through. From there, they are guided by their local beacon, which will assist them in navigation to the next beacon, and so forth, until the ship arrives at the corresponding point it wishes to be at. There are many strange currents in the ether, and the beacons will assist vessels in riding along the right ones; or at least, taking the path of least resistance. Some ships can even make their own bubbles of current, such as the vaunted etherships.
At their destination, the rift is opened again, and the ship returns to reality. However, the engines sometimes fire on their own, or etherspace simply opens a rift on its own and kicks the voyagers out, leaving ships far from their intended destination. Due to the engine's need to recharge, damaged ships will occasionally become trapped in the tempest, for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and even millennia. It is not entirely unheard of for ancient Coalition vessels to emerge as empty ghosts- their automated systems having finally restored power to the engines- to bring their long-dead crew to where they were once needed. Such events are still rare, of course.
However, such relatively fast travel it is not without cost, accidents aside. Early travelers must have wondered why they began to loose their grip on what was real and what wasn't, but as far as anyone knows, they never figured it out. The Old Coalition was a time of great scientific achievement, but it was also a time when man began to lose his sense of wonder and willingness to believe more than what he saw before him. It wasn't until the early days of the Imperial-era that the source of frequent illness in long-term etherspace travelers was discovered: it was the ether itself.
The crew of etherships, who would often spend months and even years in the tempestuous realm, suffered from a unique form of madness. All travelers were asked to fill out a survey for the Imperial administration, one that took over a century to compile, and the results were all the same: there was a great sense of discomfort to the realm, as if those who entered it were not desired there. More superstitious folk even went so far as to say it was evil.
In those suffering from ether madness, occasional voices were the first symptoms, followed by faint whispers and distant, distorted conversation. Nightmares were frequently reported immediately upon entry, from standard fare to more unusual and surreal visions. Many spoke of feeling like they were not alone, or they were being watched; that they saw things out of the corners of their eyes which would be gone when they turned around. Paranoia and anxiety would set in soon after as their psychological divide between the material and immaterial fell apart.
Eventually, the sufferers would enter a state of incurable insomnia, seeing and hearing the unreal as much as the real. With exposure to fresh air and sunlight, a good deal of people recovered, but some never do. The madness is only fueled by the chilling tales of ghost ships and vanishings that occur in the ether. Vessels leave their home ports and show up at their destination completely empty, sometimes only a few days late, sometimes thousands of years late. Not to mention, the rampant tales of the various demons and dark powers that are said to inhabit the ether can be quite indulgent to the vivid imagination of the Tarsin people...
With this “culture of fear” around the otherworldly realm, and all-surrounding tempests and darkness which could smash one's vessel in a single moment, it is no surprise such madness results. In recent times, the question has been uttered: what exactly is this place?