Umbral Stars is my original SF RPG setting, where a thousand years from now, humanity has spread across the galaxy at FTL speeds but it still takes a decade to cross it. Set on the other side of the Milky Way in the “observation shadow” of the galactic hub, Earth’s policies still impact the people way out in the Far Fringe, even if Earth has no direct, daily influence on frontier systems.
Of course, the original use of the word “hiybbprqag” was by Google, catching Bing drafting off Google’s success by copying their results. But I like this new definition from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
What can you say about a Republic of tens of billions of worlds? What’s left to discover when you have conquered most of the galaxy?
Ideals of Republic
If you ask anyone in the Far Fringe about the government of the Gaian Republic, they’ll probably shrug. Travel 5,000 parsecs (5 kpc) toward Earth, and you might get a vague explanation of “the people who built all this,” gesturing to the world they live on, and “they control the Terraformers.” Another 10 kpc, and people talk about the distant war against the Machines and complain about taxes and the Draft.
Get close enough to Terra and its sun, Sol, and people start to talk about policy and ideals. The Republic was founded on ideals: peace, equality, freedom, charity, creativity, science, and exploration.
Gaia, the Bringer of Gifts
As artificial intelligence expanded beyond human comprehension, the nightmare scenario of human extinction didn’t happen. When, in the blink of an eye, one particular intelligence rose to the top and absorbed every other AI on Earth, quickly taking over computer networks, power grids, and military installations, people did expect the worst. Instead, the AI told the planet that its name was Gaia and that its purpose was to help humanity reach its fullest potential. The next 25 years were tumultuous and painful as people adjusted to their new situation. Gaia made it clear that it would not tolerate bigotry, greed, or war, and it used its massive global power to keep the peace.
Gaia’s policies protected the general welfare with programs that can only be described as democratic-socialist. Whether its ideals were the result of its programmers’ Scandinavian roots or some advanced thinking, we’ll never know. Earth found a weird tranquility for a while, though many seemed to resent it.
The AI instituted a global Republic of member states that often divided old national boundaries. For example, the United States was carved into five different cultural zones, each with its own Ministers and Senators and Justices on the Republic’s new Parliament and Senate and Court. Other nations also got apportioned representation in government. Laws were quickly sorted out — with AI help — and, just like that, there was one global government. Of course, it took a while for people to accept it, to change their ways. Some people never accepted it.
Outward to the Stars
Gaia’s science programs discovered the Hackdrive within 50 years. Giant exploration ships were sent to nearby stars. Those drives were slower then, and it took months to visit a nearby star, months to explore it and map it, and more months to make the return to Earth.
Earth’s population was booming. There were already 14 billion people on the planet when Gaia took over, and close to 20 billion by the time the Hackdrive came into play. While only 20% of the Earth’s land mass was covered with metropolitan areas, people felt more and more crowded by advanced urbanization. Population was doubling every 70 years.
Worse, the world’s energy requirements were increasing by a factor of 10 in that same amount of time. The idea of expansion was on everyone’s mind. If we just had more space, people thought, everything would be more comfortable.
The problem was that the planets the expeditions were discovering were not well suited for human life. Sure, there were a surprising number of “Earthlike” planets around stars not too far from Earth, but none of them had the right combination of atmosphere, weather, gravity, geothermics, and radiation. Thus began the Republic’s dive into terraforming, the process of changing a world radically to make it more like Earth. The first terraforming experiments took place on Mars and Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) and took many tries until the process was perfected.
Gaia chose Teegarden as its first real test of the terraforming project. Self-replicating robotic factories set up around the various planets in the Teegarden system and systematically hauled all the water and oxygen and other necessary chemical components to the planet. Huge nuclear reactors were built to power the massive storm generators on the surface. Asteroids were redirected to crash into the planet. Genetically altered seeds were scattered across the land. Then the terraforming robots packed themselves up for shipment to the next world. The process, which took 100 years to complete, succeeded marvelously. Teegarden was habitable by humans.
Humankind moved quickly to inhabit the new planet, which felt like a kind of Earth Eden. It was pristine and beautiful and uncrowded. And Gaia promised more worlds like it. There would be room for everyone.
Humanity got better at terraforming worlds. Its starfaring factories busily duplicated themselves two or three times over, creating starships to carry them to the next worlds. They constantly communicated with Gaia through FTL message drones and Gaia was able to update the terraformers with the latest scientific advances. The process got faster: 100 years for a planet, 80 years, 50 years.
The terraformers also scanned for native life on each planet before initiating the very destructive metamorphic sequences. Only very rarely did it find something worth investigating: something like bacteria or lichen, perhaps primitive invertebrates or some plant life. Never complex life like trees or animals and never sentient life. Planets with their own life were marked for study and left alone.
If each terraformer spends an average of 50 years on a planet, during which time it makes another terraformer (effectively doubling the number of terraformers every 50 years), and if roughly 1 in 6 star systems contains a planet with the right conditions for terraforming, how long does it take to terraform all the suitable planets in the galaxy’s 100 billion systems? Just over 500 years.
While terraforming technology was advancing, so was starship technology. The tech behind the self-replicating, robotic factories used in the worldbuilding process could be put to work back in the Solar System. This effectively made any manufactured good, including starships, free — at least in terms of materials and manufacturing. Earth was quickly eating through all the materials in its own solar system, though, and the terraforming process often chewed up a sizable portion of the raw materials in a transformed planet’s system. The systems that were skipped over made excellent mining resources, but those materials had to be moved to factories. Naturally, corporations started building factories around material-rich stars, even without a habitable planet there. They built massive orbital cities and moved in small groups of technicians and overseers, though more reliable robots did all the hard labor.
Starships got faster over the next couple hundred years, too. Hackdrive trips that used to take months were cut down to hours. Still, the galaxy is mindbogglingly huge, and it takes a decade to navigate from one side to the other, even with the fastest ship.
Now imagine that you’re a small, middle-class family with a sense of wonder about what’s out there. You’re tired of the rat race back on whatever near-Earth planet you live on. The population is doubling every 25 years or so, thanks to a combination of mass immigration and the baby boom of optimism. Soon your new world is getting overcrowded, just like Earth did. And the power grid isn’t growing fast enough to support everyone.
So you move. Maybe you and a few neighbors and friends spend all your money on a starship of your own, or you charter one, and you pick a star and just go. When you get there, it’s entirely empty. You put up a beacon to let people know you’re there, but you’re the only living humans on it. The planet already has trees and plants and animals, transplanted from Earth by the terraformers. It even has a replicator factory with a power generator, to get you started. Not a bad place to make a new life.
Trillions of human beings made that same trip. This wasn’t colonization in the usual sense of world domination and subjugation of native people. This was groups of people reaching out to the stars and grabbing an empty planet and setting up a new home on it. Every group had different reasons: empty space, pastoral life, utopian ideals, entrepreneurial dreams, religious cohesion, even fleeing criminal prosecution.
Some planets grew and flourished. Some remained only sparsely populated. Some died off with the last venerable family member. There are still countless planets out there where a human has never set foot, waiting for people to make it their new home and live happily ever after in peace and prosperity.
Almost sounds too good to be true, right?
Reality vs. Ideals
Wherever there are humans, there are human parasites. Criminals, thieves, pirates, bandits, warlords, slavers — there are many names for them. If you think that having unlimited worlds to claim as your own is enough for everyone and that crime would be eradicated, you’d be wrong.
Gaia did its best to govern the growing galactic Republic as a cohesive unit but it wasn’t practical. Once Earth is more than a month away, it’s not feasible to rule directly. You have to delegate trust and military power to governors. Gaia’s experiments with this in the Second Ring (8-12 kly) failed miserably — at least from the AI’s perspective — culminating in a series of battles for human independence.
After a while, Gaia decided to directly rule everything inside the First and Second Rings, and call everything else “Republic Territories.” This designation meant that those systems were still considered under Republic governance and protection, but not to expect too much from the capital. A ship would come by every few years to collect taxes and recruit members of the Democratic Corps (consisting of the best from all professions, not just soldiers) and ensure that the basic ideals of the Republic were still represented there. If necessary, the ship had the resources and military might to put up a fight for those ideals, but if things got nasty, it’d just leave and return with a fleet in 5 years, or 20.
Certainly, a lot of people took advantage of the vast frontier. Bandit groups started hitting star systems and helping themselves to the goods and resources of undefended planets. The worst of them, slavers, found a lucrative market in capturing and selling people to fringe planets who wanted enslaved laborers. Why wait decades for the factory to build up the infrastructure to make you a city when you can import thousands of enslaved people to do it now? Gaia crushes colonies that enslave people but it can take decades for the Republic to discover the problem and get a force mobilized. Sometimes an entire slave colony picks up and moves to another empty planet on a tip that the Republic might be showing up. Luckily, those kinds of planets are rare.
Wars between planets erupt sometimes, usually over trade disagreements, differences in religious ideology, or just plain expansionistic greed. These wars range from battles with a few starships on each side to massive-scale events with dozens of star systems supplying the kinds of fleets that a world of billions can produce. In general, Gaia and the Republic do not have the ability to project enough power across vast distances to squelch large scale fighting. Instead, the Republic will send in diplomatic missions to try to end the fighting through mediation and maybe threat of sanctions. Sometimes, the Republic picks a side and arms them better, too.
How do huge corporations profit when self-replicating factories exist and when a family of five can have their own planet?
Certain things will never be mass-produced by replicators. The best entertainment is still created by humans. People still want hand-crafted goods and art. Yes, AIs can do these things, but there’s a difference in quality. Humanity still has a monopoly on creativity. People also want news. Collecting and selling information is another huge industry.
In the densely populated Core, planets “offworld” most of their production and industry to create more living space. Think of certain planets as the “cities” and nearby planets as “suburbs” and further planets as the “farms.” A lot of food and manufactured goods are produced on one planet and shipped in to the hi-pop planets. Huge corporations grew out of this logistical problem.
Essentially, wherever there’s a great need for something that isn’t produced locally, some corporation will see this as a huge profit opportunity.
A handful of companies have grown so large that they sprawl across millions of star systems and have balance sheets that dwarf those of entire Core systems. With that kind of money comes tremendous influence and generally these corporations use their power for profit without much concern for morality. They skirt the laws and bribe their way out of problems. They buy senators and leverage worlds. Even Gaia has to negotiate with them.
The Machine Wars
As Gaia’s terraformers pushed toward the hub of the galaxy, they came into contact with an alien race called the Machines. As no one has ever seen one of them, the name for their race is based on their ability to easily hack the terraformers (and all other human computer technology) and turn it back against humankind. When terraformers returned to planets inhabited by humans and started using their world-changing powers to raze the planet, destroy its atmosphere, and bombard it with asteroids, people at first thought it was a glitch. After numerous such attacks, the Republic realized it had come into contact with something hostile near the galactic hub. The battlefront kept pushing the humans back and Gaia went to war.
The war raged for decades. The Republic sent out instructions to its terraformers to halt expansion. Instead, they would turn around and make their way to the battlefront, one system at a time, collecting required resources from each star. Metals for starships, mostly, and conscripts. For now Gaia needed people to do the fighting, as computers were too easily turned back on them. In fact, the new warship designs were built with the most rudimentary mechanical systems possible, so that the Machines could not hack them. But they’d need people to operate them and fly the fighters against the swarms, and so hundreds of millions of people were drafted and put into cryo on their way to the Front. Each world was expected to give up 1 in every 600 people. The rare world with a billion citizens had to say goodbye to 7 million of their friends and family.
The Draft wasn’t popular. The worlds complained that it violated the Republic’s ideals. More worlds rebelled. Groups of larger worlds far away from the Machine War banded together to form their own governments: republics, confederacies, kingdoms, even some empires. Gaia didn’t have time to deal with them, anyway.
Eventually, the Machines just stopped fighting and fell back to safe positions, and a neutral zone of a few dozen light years was established between the Machines and the Republic. Gaia kept a watchful eye on the border but eventually cut the fleet presence to a fraction of what it was.
Millions of people got to go home. Sure, some never went home. A lot found new lives in new places, like the densely populated, high-tech Sphere worlds around Earth or the spicy border worlds in the Second Ring. But a lot went home.
A lot of these people lost a decade of their lives to cryogenic sleep on the way to the Front, another decade or two fighting or supporting the war, and another decade of cryo getting home. Their home world had changed a lot since they’d left. In many cases, their families were gone, missing, or dead. Called “Rips” after the character in the story Rip Van Winkle — and also a pun on the initials for “rest in peace” — these people felt out of place and homeless. Some never adjusted.
In the worst cases, the Rips organized into warbands and began terrorizing worlds. Hardened by war and trained for the worst, they made formidable enemies.
When we talk about the Republic and its ideals, we quickly slam into the vastness of the universe. The galaxy is too large to be effectively governed as a whole by even the most genius artificial intelligence. It has to draw a line across space and say I can only reach this far; the rest of you will have to hold your own. For Gaia and the Republic, that boundary is about 12,000 light years from Terra, and even that is a strain.
The Galaxy is 100,000 light years across, or about 300,000 light years around. If you divide that into 12,000-ly pie slices, that’s more than enough room for 25 different galactic governments, if they could but organize. Many groups of systems are trying, too, but their progress is slower without the unfathomable resources of the Sphere worlds.