At the beginning of the 22nd century, human civilization in Sol was in decline. There wasn’t one single factor, but a series of systemic failures that, when combined, meant that life on Earth (and the small number of off-world colonies that were completely dependent on resources from humanity’s home) was coming to an end.
So it was time to leave. While humanity desperately struggled to reverse events that had begun centuries before, several governments and industries across the system pooled their resources, forming a group known simply as The Council. They compiled a list of stars around which possible new homes for humanity orbited, and started building some of the most ambitious spacecraft mankind had ever conceived. Each Lifeboat (their designers steadfastly refused to call them “Arks” but everyone called them that anyway), was designed to transport a quarter million people, a million human zygotes, and millions of flora and fauna in cryogenic suspension shepherded by a generation crew of fifty across the vast distances to these far-flung gems along with enough material to kick-start humanity in a new home. Late-breaking refinements in the Korolev Hydrogen Drive allowed these vessels to reach relativistic speeds with comparatively trivial volumes of reaction mass, allowing The Council to select candidate systems from all corners of the Milky Way.
Target 5 was star C16-7436-A12 – named Whistler after Arnold Whistler, the deep space astronomer who catalogued it. Whistler was part of a small cluster of main sequence class K, G, and F stars roughly 7500 light years from Sol in the Perseus Arm (dubbed Whistler’s Reach by the expedition team), and all indications were that it had at least twelve planets, one of which showed signs of being earth-like, and two more showed promise. It was, by far, the furthest star to be included in the list, and only due to the improbable richness of terrestrial worlds detected across the cluster.
Lifeboat 5, christened the Leif Eriksson, began her burn for Whistler on February 8th, 2147. She carried half again as much weight as the ships who came before her, designed to transport the crew and its precious cargo the staggering distance across the gulf to the Perseus Arm. Most of those who went into the pods did not truly expect to ever be roused. When Leif Eriksson exceeded maximum attenuation range from Earth several years later, there were fifteen target star systems on The Council’s list. Four Lifeboats had been launched in the years prior to Leif Eriksson and eight more were under construction in orbit above Earth and Mars.
To everyone’s surprise, Leif Eriksson’s mission went flawlessly. Her deceleration burn ended 7,502 years (17 relative) after leaving Sol (AD 9649). Whistler 4 was more habitable than most astronomers even thought possible, teeming with life that, while largely incompatible with terrestrial life, seemed fairly ambivalent to the new DNA-based organisms being introduced into the ecosystem. There were also several other worlds and moons that were on the fringes of sustainability and two resource-rich belts.
It took a generation to get the colony well-established, and another to gestate and raise the rest of the genetic diversity brought from Sol (in addition to natural births from the colonists), and after 200 years on Whistler, the colony numbered over fifty million and was successful enough to spread to two small colonies across the system. By the colony’s 500th anniversary, there were billions of humans in Whistler’s Reach, including several small colonies in nearby systems started by intrepid explorers willing to undertake the multi-year journey to nearby stars. Advanced telescopes directed at The Council’s other targets revealed a few showing signs of civilization, but most, including the cradle of humanity, were dark.
In the Whistler year 532 (AD 10,181), the Mao-MacGregor Jump Drive was invented, allowing instantaneous travel across multiple light-years at a time, and a new era of expansion and exploration began.