Steely-Eyed Rocket Women
2175 - 2208
“Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he cannot return to the blissful ignorance he left. Motion, of necessity, involves a change in perspective.”
- Commissioner Pravin Lal, A Social History of Planet
In 2175, Alexei Vasilikovich Federov--then working as an astrophysicist at the University-aligned outpost of Zarya-Sunrise--first discovered the existence of the hyperlane megastructures at the furthest reaches of the Alpha Centauri system. Initially the purpose of the hyperlanes were obscure, and despite Dr. Federov’s advocacy, sustained research into their use was deemed secondary to the needs of the Unification War. Federov died in the final siege of University Base, a decade later, never learning that he had made one of the biggest discoveries of the century.
Research would not resume until Lady Skye declared victory in 2186 and the surviving researchers at Zarya-Sunrise were folded into the Gaian Space Initiative. The GSI’s primary mission was exploration of the Centauri system with a longer term aim of moving industrial processes off-Chiron; however, exploration of the hyperlanes continued under Dr. Federov’s protege, Natalia Georgiyevna Yushchenko, who used her formidable skills at bureaucratic maneuvering to secure cargo space for probes on military shuttles or construction vehicles.
The first seven probes to encounter the hyperlane structure disappeared and were believed destroyed. Probe PSZ-8 , launched on 2191, was believed to suffer the same fate, but to the astonishment of Dr. Yushchenko’s team, the probe returned after sixty-five hours with initial survey data on the Haro system, some twenty light years away. Humanity had achieved faster-than-light travel more or less by accident, and with that the stars were open to us. 
The success of PSZ-8 astonished the people of Chiron and greatly raised the profile of the hyperlane project. Accordingly, Yushchenko was sidelined in favor of a high profile effort by particle physicist Cótighín Unog. Dr. Unog’s easy-going nature made her a favorite in the Gaian media, but more importantly she was the daughter of the Gaian elite and considered to be politically reliable. Unog was to continue the unmanned tests of her predecessor in anticipation of what became known as Project Tír na nÓg--crewed missions to determine the habitability of other worlds.
The Tír na nÓg astronauts would need to meet a variety of mutually contradictory requirements. The initial Tír na nÓg modules would house three crew members for a mission that would last at least eight weeks, necessitating that the crew be accustomed to isolation--while also being extroverted enough to serve as spokeswomen for the Gaian space project. They would need to be bold adventurers who loyally toed the government line. Scientific prodigies who were also expendable.
The first astronauts were primarily Occupation Force pilots with thousands of combat hours from the Unification Wars, or test pilots who had pushed the bleeding edge of intra-system flight. As a seventeen-year-old cadet, Blaiogu Failal (b. 2172) flew a ship in an experimental fusion drive in a big looping orbit as far as the gas giant Fingainóinn; the military brass officially condemned her recklessness before shortlisting her for Tír na nÓg. For many, her cocky grin was synonymous with the interstellar expedition.
Dán Bonda (b. 2160) was only twelve years older, but serving as a combat pilot on the Hive front in the 2180s marked her as a woman apart on Tír na nÓg. In the course of her last tour of duty, Lt. Commander Bonda was shot down over enemy territory and narrowly escaped capture by Chairman Yang’s militia. In her civilian life, she was one of Gaia’s leading botanists with an intuitive sense that led her to several ground-breaking discoveries in the study of the fungal bloom.
Bonda would command the first crewed mission over the hyperlane, launching on June 3, 2193 on a Tír na nÓg capsule that was (in her words) “about the size of a Spartan prison cell.” Tír na nÓg 1 was gone from GSI sensors for ninety-four heartstopping hours. According to one popular story, Lady Skye’s aides were hastily composing a eulogy when Bonda’s signal was received. The even-tempered Bonda broke out in a rare grin; the commander had been distracted from returning on time, she said, by indications of organic life on two separate worlds in the Haro system. Haro IIIa was only barely capable of sustaining human life, but Haro I was, from her initial scans, “quite comfortable.”
The revelation of habitable worlds teeming with life just six months away from Chiron was electrifying. The Tír na nÓg astronauts increasingly pushed themselves to see how long they could stay in the Haro system to find new discoveries, which delighted the public while alarming flight surgeons. Lieutenant Failal put herself on starvation rations for 214 hours “and thirty-three minutes” but came back with video footage of Haro I _and_ the moon Haro IIIa that dominated the datalinks for the next three weeks. (Failal herself passed out upon her return to Chiron gravity and was in recovery for months, a fact that she and the GSI both concealed.)
Beyond the spectacle, the apparent habitability of Haro I raised the prospect of space colonization in the public imagination. This was tantalizing to many who grumbled at the cramped quarters of the old Chiron bases, and particularly to those who had been political enemies of the Gaians during the Unification Wars. Lady Skye was also interested, hoping to reduce the ecological impact of billions of teeming humanity by dispersing them to the stars.
To do so, the GSI would need to replace the Tír na nÓg capsule with a larger vessel designed to sustain a crew of thirty for up to at least five years. The first of the new Colbhennéll-class science ships, the GSS Zakharov
, would launch in 2199 with Failal in command. It's sister ship, the GSS Lindley,
launched on May 1, 2200, but to the surprise of many, Dán Bonda was passed over. Instead, command was given to a young string theorist named Annu Lore (b. 2171). Lore was the daughter of an influential member of the Dáil and undoubtedly brilliant in her field, but she had not been one of the Tír na nÓg astronauts. She would perpetually struggle as a ship’s captain, with ultimately tragic consequences.
The colonization of Haro I, now known as Forest Primeval for its verdant woodlands, was announced on September 13, 2204. Hundreds of thousands signed up to be in the first wave of colonists, far outstripping the number of beds available. Many enterprising Gaians paid to have civilian ships outfitted with crude hyperlane drives so that they could offer services as transport to the new colony. The typical would-be colonist was downwardly mobile, hailed from a defeated faction and prone to ideological deviation, and suspicious of Gaia’s Landing. They were happy to leave and the Gaian leadership was happy to see them go.
The first colonists landed on Forest Primeval on March 17, 2206, and within hours hundreds of prefab shelters dotted the clearing while sentry probes scouted the perimeter. As a sign of things to come, the first religious ceremony on this new world was not Wiccan, but Christian--a Pentecostal open air revival to christen the city that they were already calling New Eden. The bemused Gaian colonial governor observed that the unusual concentration of Lord’s Believers would surely be diluted after further waves of immigration of Chiron, but for the moment she could only regard her new subjects as strangers.
While the colony of New Eden rose from the forest floor, the Lindley
and the Zakharov
continued their survey of the nearby sectors. Their joint mission was known as the Habitable World Survey, and ostensibly they were looking for further possible targets for colonization. Increasingly, however, their remit had grown to include: identifying defensible chokepoints , archaeology of ancient ruins, and reconnaissance of possible rivals in space.
In the nearby systems, there was abundant evidence that the galaxy had been populated by at least one other star-faring species, and probably more. The hyperlanes themselves were clearly artificial, and they were but one example. When GSS Lindley
scanned Himal III in June, 2201, they revealed evidence of artificants dated back six million years. Annu Lore’s initial report posited an ancient race known as the Yuhl, which appeared to be truly massive anthropoids not unlike a centipede that commanded even larger ships. Might these Yuhl have built the hyperlanes, or did they simply take advantage of their existence? Further surveys only complicated the timeline. The asteroid IL-3542 bore signs of energy weapon fire dating back to the time of the Roman Empire, while on the moon Tlom IVa evidence of ancient writing was found on alien centotaphs from perhaps six hundred thousand years BCE. The galaxy was, at least at one time, a very crowded place indeed.
The probability was mounting that humanity would make contact with at least one interstellar empire. Deep in the halls of Gaia’s Landing, a debate raged: should they welcome first contact, or not? The admiralty and security services were wary about the intentions of potential rivals, but many Gaian elites felt like being welcoming to outsiders was in keeping with their traditional values as a people.  After several heated discussions, Lady Skye finally ruled: their ships would welcome new peoples with open arms.
It was a bold stance, and soon it would be put to the test. Just after the festival of Lughnasadh 2208, an urgent report came to GSI from the Zakharov
. First contact had been made with an unknown vessel in the Denip’s system. It remained to be seen whether they would be friend or foe.
 Unofficially named for Prokhor Sergeyovich Zakharov, formerly Academician of the University of Planet.
 That is to say, some stars--approximately one thousand in the final accounting, or 0.0000000005% of the number of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.
 Initially slated to be surrounding the stars Snaga, Guelea and Tlom, although Gaia would soon outgrow this.
 The millions who died in the Unification Wars might dispute precisely how welcoming we Gaians were, but I digress.