The World of Poison Fruit
No one knows who invented space travel. It must be ancient, though, because spaceships are mentioned in Homer and the Bible. They were cruder things than modern ships, though; just look at all the trouble that Ulysses and Jonah had.
Throughout history, great empires have risen, conquering large segments of the solar system. At its apex the Roman Empire ruled everything from orbit of Mars to the moons of Saturn. Not only did they enlarge existing orbital habitats and build new ones, but it is sometimes even claimed that they had the technology to land on planets and take off again. No one entirely believes that last part, though, since it is well known that entering such a large gravity well is simply a flashy way to commit suicide.
Alas, the Empire succumbed to internal stresses and waves of barbarian invaders from the outer system. A dark age began in which most people focused on subsistence, and it was too dangerous and expensive to stray too far from home. Rome itself, one of the oldest and largest habitats and the seat of the Church, lost much of its population and much of its influence, except within its own immediate vicinity in the asteroid belt. At one point the French even forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon! Other Italian habitats, or individual cities within habitats, did better, especially those like Venice and Genoa who managed to maintain their fleets and keep up a steady, albeit local, trade.
In recent generations, though, Italy has grown wealthy again. Her popes, bankers, mercenaries, and merchant princes bring the treasure of all of Christendom to her coffers. Her artists and engineers are the envy of the system. Granted, there are still threats to this prosperity. The recent conquest of the habitat of Naples by France has shown that the European powers have grown strong enough to be a threat. Piracy is rife everywhere. The Turks, though humbled by their defeat a few years ago at Lepanto, are still a powerful force. And, worst of all, Italy herself is plagued by constant small wars between individual cities and factions. Lucky is the habitat that doesn’t have at least one war going on between its cities at any given time. Lucky is the ruler of a city who can keep the local nobles from slaughtering each other in vendettas. Overall, though, things are going well and Italy is once again, for the first time in centuries, the center of the Christian universe.
Families and Factions
House Aragon is one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Not only do they control a newly unified Spain with recently established colonies in recently explored parts of the system, but the have extensive holdings in the rest of Europe, as well as a marriage connection with the current Holy Roman Emperor. The head the family is King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, but he isn’t in this story. The Aragons in this story are his second cousins, former members of the royal family of Naples, before its conquest by France. Now they are meer vassals of the French viceroy. Granted, they still control the Duchies of Calabria and Amalfi, as well as a cardinalship in Rome, but these honors hardly compare with rulership of an entire country. They seek to mend their fortunes, remembering better days and more prosperous relatives.
House Orsini is an ancient patrician house of Rome, able to trace their roots to the founding of the city. At least, that’s what they say. What is known for sure is that since the dark ages Orsini have been involved in Roman politics. The other thing they are known for is their recurring feuds with House Colonna, another ancient Roman family. What some people have not realized, at least until it was too late, is that the Orsini and the Colloni are quite capable of joining forces against any third party that tries to muscle into their turf. Between the two of them they control the majority of the eternal city’s military assets, as well as numerous men in key positions of authority, both secular and religious.
The senior Orsini are adept at walking the line between suave, cultured nobles and gangster bosses. Not that they see any conflict between the two. Their current “Prince” is Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, near Rome. Besides their seat at Brachiano, a junior branch of the family holds the County of Pitigliano, also near Rome.
House Medici is by far the wealthiest family in Italy, as well as the absolute rulers of the Tuscany Habitat and its capital city, Florence. The current head of the family is Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici. He was a highly successful condiaterre, or mercenary general until the main branch of the family died out and he inherited the throne.
Rumors of crimes of brutality and lust attach to the Medicis as they have done to no house since the fall of the Borgias, over a generation ago. Most of these strories seem to have been spread by jealous rivals. On the other hand, it is well known that Cosimo does what he wants, without reference to the laws of God or man.
While smaller habitats exist, built on different patterns, the majority of people in the solar system live in what, in another universe, are called Stanford Toruses. They are gigantic (tens of thousands of square miles of surface area) donut shaped objects that spin to produce artificial gravity. A system of mirrors transmits light more or less evenly onto the surface, while most harmful radiationis absorbed by the outer rim. The terrain inside every habitat varies, with each having its own combination of coasts, mountains, rivers and other landforms.
No one knows who originally built the habitats. While the commoners believe it was the Romans, it seems more likely that they just repaired and expanded what was already there. Whoever the builders were, they believed in massive redundancy, generous factors of safety, and minimizing the number of moving parts---which is probably why so many habitats are still livable.
The microgravity hub area of each major habitat contains vast manufacturing and storage spaces, most of which are only partially explored. There are probably large areas where no man has entered since ancient times. No one alive knows what most of the equipment does or how to use it. However, there are certain common items that any spacefarer knows how to recognize and put to use, like life support and thruster modules. The ancients left generous stockpiles of the most common sizes, which can easily be bolted onto contemporary hulls (built of wood†, wrought iron, canvas and other mundane materials) to create functional space ships.
One process that has not been lost is the art of making very thin, strong solar sails....though the actual machines and the technique of using them is a closely guarded guild secret. All ships that sail out of sight of a habitat carry solar sails in addition to thrusters because thrusters are not only expensive, but they sometimes fail and, when they do, no one knows how to repair them. Also, thrusters burn phlogiston (a.k.a. hydrogen) which, while it is cheap and available at the space port of any habitat, takes up space that could otherwise be used for cargo. For these reasons long-distance freighters and cruisers rely on solar sails for their primary means of propulsion.
Guns and gunpowder have been around for two and a half centuries, and cannon have long since replaced catapults and ballistas as artillery, both within habitats and in space. Black powder weapons work in a vacuum as long as a high oxidizer powder is used. “Space powder” is less powerful than that used in atmosphere, but the lack of air resistance makes up for for the reduced muzzel velocities at all but the shortest ranges.
Matchlock arquebuses, though they can be a bit aggravating, are common infantry weapons. Wheellock weapons are also available and are more reliable and don’t require walking around with a burning match. However they are also several times as expensive, and never issued to common soldiers. There are also still plenty of bows and crossbows around. They take more practice to master than guns but they tend to be more accurate and reliable. Also, sailors and marines dislike matchlocks for the simple reason that they live next to large tanks of highly flammable phlogiston.