Stars of Steel

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  • 4807-4882 - The Arrival
They came out of the stormy skies, aliens from beyond the stars. The term they called themselves translated to Chandlers, the "merchants of light", and they had a simple offer; they were here to trade. They offered physical goods, knowledge and travel, all for often unusual prices such as (most notoriously) a small number of humans "Of an unusual sort and psyche." All these were prices that the kings and leaders of the 49th century were all too ready to pay. Many of the goods the Chandlers sold were ultimately believed to have originated elsewhere, built by unknown other alien races; the Chandlers themselves being characteristically mute on this subject. Overall in retrospect the Chandlers demonstrated a notable, almost reckless lack of concern for the end-use of their goods, though they did completely reject the prospect of selling arms or anything that could be easily weaponized.
As a general rule the goods sold by the Chandlers came 'as-is' with no documentation beyond that required to operate them. They were mostly used intensively and to the point of disrepair long before their operating principles were understood - in many cases, even before relevant analytical technologies and techniques were invented. Consequently while the Chandler's goods gave humanity a leg up in many fields, it was only a temporary one with humanity left to puzzle out how to copy or replace them with its own collective ingenuity. Many of the most sophisticated and powerful were found on the colonies and it seems likely that the Chandlers were even less concerned than usual about long-term effects on worlds with populations of only a few million. In a number of (in)famous cases, these long-term effects didn't manifest until generations after the departure of the Chandlers.
This is not to say that the Chandlers were amoral and uncaring in all their dealings; they responded to a series of severe famines during the mid-49th century in a typically Chandler way, by transporting those suffering off Gaia to habitable worlds. Many of these settlements both large and small were placed in the outer edges of what was colloquially called 'known space' if not beyond. Some, such as Tempest, were isolated for a century or more; as the Chandler-supplied heighliners only went to predefined locations and human-directed exploration during the 49th and 50th centuries was a slow, fumbling affair it was easy for these 'unknown' colonies to be completely missed. It was not until the Reconnection-era survey of accessible star systems that humanity had a thorough catalogue of human-settled systems and worlds, including a few settlements on otherwise inhabited worlds that had simply never been identified (typically due to being on different continents) until the widespread arrival of orbital remote imaging in the exocolonies. The legacy of these population movements was that by the sudden departure of the Chandlers in 4882, roughly one in ten humans lived outside of Gaea's atmosphere; fifty million on the sky islands, Nergal or Inanna and at least a hundred million spread over dozens of exocolonies in other solar systems.
  • 4885-5030 - The Long Absence and the end of the Heroic Age of Space Exploration.
The departure of the Chandlers had a very rapid effect on human space travel as it was soon discovered that without the Chandlers providing regular navigational updates, the automated heighliners could no longer find a way to their destinations. By 4885, barely more than two years since the Chandlers' departure, half of all destinations were inaccessible and by the end of the decade the number of extrasolar worlds that the heighliners could still path to had fallen to roughly a half-dozen with several more that could only be visited intermittently. As most of the collective Gaean merchant skyfleet consisted of heighliners, this meant that most of the human-settled worlds were economically isolated; ironically these navigational limits also concentrated heighliner activity in both the solar system proper and what would late become known as the 'core worlds'.
Human-built leviships were woefully incapable of making up for these navigational limits; with the exception of a few behemoths like the Great Northern none were remotely comparable in size to the heighliners and even those that were suffered due to simply being slower and less efficient in various respects. Most were much smaller, meant for moving relatively small cargos or non-mercantile activities such as exploration. While they could continue to deliver mail, some passengers and high-value items this was a highly limited substitute, particularly given the limits of Gaean navigational abilities in the 49th century. Furthermore over the decades the black-box levidrives and related machinery slowly began to fail. By the Great War a quarter of all levidrive ships (including heighliners in this total) were inoperable or unsafe for planetary landings. By the World War two decades later this number had risen to half and finally by 4982, the centennial of the Chandler's departure, exactly one dozen individual levidrive ships still operated, all of them too much valuable to be used for mundane cargo travel. More problematic from a social perspective, the pressure valve of departure for the exocolonies was greatly reduced and the 50th century seemed to make up for all the intercine violence and political upheavals that the 49th had avoided.
By 4890 the Long Absence was in full swing; with the exception of the half-dozen systems still accessible by heighliners the excolonies were effectively on their own. The occasional storm-blown levidrive tramp or mail ship arrived bringing news from Gaea - and most critically, books and technical volumes - but plantations rotted and mines went unworked as exocommerce withered. In most colonies life slowed and lacking many of the industrial advancements of the homeworld they settled into a rustic existence with a low level of urbanization. Ironically at this same time Gaea was going through a period of rapid development, urbanization and widespread industrialization.
The century and a half of the Long Absence also saw the propagation of various ethos, ideologies and even in several colonies, genetic changes. One of the most well known of the last was Cliona, where a "eugenics" modification purchased off the Chandlers spread through the population via what was later recognized as (and formed much of the late 50th century understanding of) a gene drive. By the time this gene drive burnt itself out a century and a half later less than one in five Clionans was still a 'classic' human. Even more unusual changes happened on the isolated colony of Tempest where no men had existed for almost two centuries. Unusual technology was all but left behind by the Chandlers on more than a dozen colony worlds.
Crude force motors derived from investigations of Chandler technology had been used in the orbital spaces since early in the 50th century and travel between the near-Gaean islands was not seriously impeded by the progressive failure of Chandler-built engines. However, until the mass production of Blavatsky-effect countergravity motors was underway in the second decade of the 51st century, the only way off major gravity wells such as Gaea or Nergal was via chemical rockets - a clumsily inefficient and expensive method. It was however the only method that could be built by human hands as human levidrives were nowhere near powerful enough to escape Gaea's surface gravity and consequently sluggish force-drive ships labouriously lofted into orbit or constructed in the relatively limited island industrial sites began to painfully cross known space bringing small deliveries and updates from the homeworld as the last few Chandler-built levidrives progressively failed.
It is notable that until the latter half of the 50th century that even the idea of battles between spacecraft was seen as fantastical. It was only the development of electronic detection system and guided missiles that even made it worthy of consideration; until then ships were effectively unfindable with just the simple telescopes that existed and weapon ranges were all but nonexistent. Even so it was not until several decades into the 51st century that the first genuine space warships were built.
  • 5030-5080 - Reconnection Period.
The mass production of Blavatsky-effect motors squared the circle to make humanity a proper spacefaring species once again. Even the earliest models could easily lift shuttles carrying a hundred or more tons into orbital space and moreover could do both on a daily basis and without the need for enormous tanks of rocket fuel. It was once more feasible to perform regular landings (or landings at all) on the exocolonies and what had been a century of film reels, microfiches and magnetic tapes dead-dropped from orbit or unloaded in a once-annual visit from one of the few remaining leviships was swiftly changed to a much more regular exchange of people and goods. Too, the great advances in electronics that ushered in the information age during the latter half of the 50th century revolutionized deep sky navigation. 51st century electronic navigation and cheap, easy bulk spacelift were the key ingredients needed to create the true space age.
These advances in spacefaring technologies allowed for the rapid expansion of both economic and political influence to the exocolonies; the core worlds' ties with Gaea, never fully severed, were rejuvenated as fast as Gaean ships could be constructed. The Veil, those systems that could only be intermittently but more or less regularly visited, came soon after. Beyond the Veil was the Verge, isolated since the end of the 49th century. Gaean explorers came here too, albeit slower and on longer expeditions as spacefaring humanity had to blaze new trails. Various long-abandoned hardship posts in barely-habitable corners of known space were revisited, reoccupied and repopulated. Commercial activity in the deep sky rapidly expanded between 5030 to 5080, going from little more than communication and sensing satellites to vast economic empires that sprawled out of Gaea into the core worlds.
The Reconnection period was hardly peaceful though as a number of states small and large sought to (re)claim a place outside of the Solar system at the expense of the colonies. Many of the extrasolar provinces and cantons on the core worlds had never meaningfully broken with Gaea and were quite willing to rejoin with the motherland and reap the benefits of rapid industrialization. The Veil and the Verge were different however; by necessity they had developed their own states and governments and their cultures had diverged in isolation. In many cases economic enticements or simply subverting local elites was enough to bring exocolonies into the expanding informal empires, while others saw the writing on the wall and simply passively accepted this new state of affairs. In cases where the colonials were more recalcitrant it was not terribly difficult for the Gaean states to enforce their will on the locals; the Gaeans had the advantages of technology, industry and numbers whereas the dispersed nature of exocolonies often worked against them. A few of these affairs proved to be more troublesome however, transit times limiting Gaean expeditions and local terrain giving the existing inhabitants an edge.
Homeworld politics also continued - and effectively completed - the trend of 50th century 'factionalization'; the end of the World War had split much of the developed world between NOTO and VSP (Vector Socialist Protocol) for the latter half of the 50th century but many states remained outside of either. The 51st century saw the moribund NOTO defense organization eventually collapse under its own internal disputes while the CEPPEC, United Lemuria and the Majestic Seven (later Twelve) were inaugurated. By 5080 every advanced economy had fallen into one of the four camps while more than half of Gaea's population, the poorest half, was locked out and became increasingly irrelevant even in the Global Congress. Changing national priorities and interests shuffled international politics and the world overall slowly slid towards a Us-vs-Them mentality.
  • 5080-5141 - The Great Game
The last decades of the 51st century and the first half of the 52nd was a period of great international competition, punctuated by one significant war and and capped by one even larger. It was also the period of greatest Gaean sway over the offworld settlements and in reaction to this, the rapid growth of extrasolar identities and the awakening of modern nationalism in them. Fueling much of this was a sustained period of economic growth as dozens of colonies industrialized and many more were tied into the human panstellar economic system. Finally, it was when Humanity had its second First Contact, this time with the Hinsivaal and Nureeg.
By the early 52nd century 'The Great Game' had became the common term for the continuing jockeying between the four superblocs, calling back to the much earlier (and mostly fictitious) 'Great Game' between Gran Bretwalda and Gondoa in early 49th century upland Murea. The unequivocal loser was the CEPPEC, already suffering internal disputes and unprepared for a major conflict. Confidence in both the CU and domestic governments bottomed out and a messy disorganized collapse marked the end of the AU. Conversely, the victory of the Jaian-led Majestic Twelve group buoyed them up and the next thirty years proved to be something of a golden age.
  • 5145-5182 - The Postwar Order
While the VSP was nominally the loser during the Solar War, the Majestic Twelve were unable (or unwilling) to deliver a knockout blow and the following three decades have been characterized by a state of cold war between the two. The VSP was able to mobilize significant 'people power' in various MJ12-controlled territories which helped offset the military inferiority they faced; it was only the arrival of the G.T.A. into the conflict in 5143 that decisively tilted things against the VSP.
The Gateway Mutiny demolished the G.T.A.'s military abilities however, as a number of expensive corporate facilities were destroyed as collateral damage during a ULORD operation masterminded by the popular General Cameron. When it came out that he was being scapegoated for this long-festering displeasure over the use of ULORD troops to defend corporate assets and profits exploded out into first stoppage action and then outright mutinies among many ULORD units in the Veil and beyond. A panicked reaction from ULORD HQ helped along by some effective VSP psy-ops caused the situation to snowball. By the end of 5144 the G.T.A.'s ability to effectively prosecute a war outside of the Core was in doubt; more cripplingly public opinion had shifted swiftly against the conflict. This proved enough for the VSP to extract an armistice and eventually a peace treaty and the shooting had stopped by the middle of 5145.
The Solar War and related events remove the lid on bubbling independence movements; the Zodiac Coalution is only the most significant of these as a number of major industrialized exocolonies break ties with their former patrons and create a new security organization that does not have Gaea at its center. Others simply go their own way, while yet others embark on long and sometimes failed insurgencies to gain independence. Many small brushfire conflicts erupt along shared planetary borders and are mostly fought by local militias and militaries supported by Gaean 'advisors'. Many analysts see this as not a return of the Great Game, but merely the ending of a temporary pause around the 40s and an evolution to a new style with new players.
Gaean politics is hardly static either; the Ironheart Pact is a dark mirror of CEPPEC as various states that had lost their influence over the past half-century found new strength together alongside a number of rising states trapped outside the major power blocs. Conscious of its precarious position essentially under the guns of three larger and more established blocks, the Pact invest heavily into deep-range infrastructure.