OK, so … it's now 2511 AD.
2011: Scientists at CERN apologetically report experimental results that seem to indicate particles moving faster than light. They ask the larger scientific community to point out where they went wrong.
At that moment, aliens very far away detect an unusual motion in the ether, like the ringing of a very small bell, and curiously turn their detector's attention towards Earth.
2012: The Sphinx, an alien race occupying a few systems hundreds of light years away, send a delegation to Earth, triggering a cultural phase change simultaneously described as an apocalypse and an omega point. Along with the gift of mind-boggling technologies, they bring bad news: the Bugs are moving in on this part of the galaxy, and just as the Sphinx detected the CERN experiments, so would the Bugs. The Bugs are an ancient and vastly successful race, vaguely comparable to ants, which tend to devour anything in their path as they expand through the galaxy. The Sphinx want to ally with Man to resist them. The Sphinx try at first to work through human governments, obeying their desire to keep the contact hidden, but by the end of the year, the secret bursts forth.
2013-2020's: Humanity flips out! On its own, humanity would likely have achieved etheric technology in another century or so as the CERN results endured and Moore’s Law sped development, but instead vast swarms abandon their current projects to leap into the future. The knowledge of the Sphinx spreads like wildfire. Etheric power, the etheric drive, gravity manipulation, nanofactures, information technologies (see Starships). Untruths and misunderstandings spread even faster: the Sphinx built the pyramids, are devils, are angels, are fake, are created by scientists, want to eat us, want to breed us, are here to help the developing world against their overlords, support gay rights, condemn the unnatural, are beyond sex … various scriptures are derived from sphinx statements, sects battle, sphinx are assassinated, kidnapped, dissected. The western world is nauseous as comparisons are continually made to the colonial era, the magical technology, the obliteration of cultures. Terror of the Bugs sweeps the world; the Bugs are innocent, the Sphinx seek to exterminate an intelligent race, they are Nazis; Bug biotechnology is the key to immortality; churches of the Sphinx and the Bug battle in the streets of Palo Alto.
2030-40's: There is a confused period that, inevitably, tires and settles. Lives go on, diapers need changing – the Sphinx are not gods, they just know more. From the crazed disruption, unmistakable signs of a golden age emerge. Etheric power is utterly clean and inexhaustible, available anywhere capable of supporting the infrastructure. Nanofacture is cheap – the Sphinx claim no intellectual property rights, no patents, so anyplace with the raw materials and sufficient power can grow sheetmetal or plastics of any description, and techniques adaptable to agriculture are hacked and distributed free. The global information network makes a quantum leap as cheap cables and towers spreads everywhere. But the shadow looms – the Bugs.
The Sphinx bring humans to their worlds, to others, teach them to build ships. And they have their own chaos. The sphinx are no more of one mind than men are. The decision to contact humans, to share the secrets of the ether with them, to lift them up – made and executed by a faction who acted alone. Allies? The Sphinx live on oxygen worlds, their metabolism not dissimilar to man’s … they have empowered their own rivals! Duels and murders, a failed coup, an epic whistling saga of the price of hubris, virulent contempt for the land crawling ether-deaf simpletons who gawk about, always asking for more … and all under the shadow of the bugs as well.
2040's: A human fleet, rapidly adapting and improving sphinx warships, patrols for bug-sign while exploring nearby space and spreading colonies … the first battle ever fought is against itself, as a sphinx-hating conspiracy inserts moles deep in the fleet organization and attempts to seize control. They fail, condemned as race traitors, the last gasp of primitive xenophobic fascistic man; they are hailed as fallen heroes and celebrated in every art.
2050's: Hostile Contact is made with the Bugs. As promised, they are rapacious, hostile, baffling, inexorable, brilliant and stupid. There are trillions and trillions of them. A new panic, and the colonies multiply exponentially. Any group that can raise some funds can put a ship together, put hundreds of colonists in frozen sleep, place thousands and thousands of fertilized embryos in suspension to keep the gene pool rich, and shoot the package off deep into space to grab some vaguely earth-like world and preserve the culture or vision or mania for posterity.
Humanity contributes to the Sphinx technology, adding their own unique take. The potential of the etheric drive is stretched. The sphinx have an inborn dim sense of the ether, and their sensorium has defined its exploitation. Humans hardly ever have any biological sense of it; it is pure phenomena to be explored and exploited. They think outside the sphinxian box and skim through space faster even than the Bug raiders. They explore and die alone in the ether, they go faster, slower, slower than time, they move backward … staid colony ships now scurrying before the bug horde, certain of the hammer’s fall, cut corners, their tiny crews certain that all of known space will soon be devoured by the swarm, let loose all their sail, and the etheric wind scatters their quarks, or smashes them into suns, or carries them far far away, or back or forward in time.
2070's: War! Human and Sphinx worlds are taken, re-won, burned. Daring raids sample the current bug sociophysiology. Lures and repellents are deployed as fleets smash together. Bugs develop a pragmatic understanding of human psychology: colonies and stations are seized, their residents held hostage and tormented, the torments broadcast. Surrender or this will be your fate. Populations lose their nerve, unseat their rulers. Militaries concede or take control, smash traitors at home.
2080's Colossal dreadnoughts drop into undetectable sub-light for years-long suicide missions into the Bug territories, crack open Bug planets, rampage without retreat.
2092: The Bugs negotiate for peace. Their frontier has advanced, but they will bypass human and Sphinx space.
… more to come …
The Loyalists keep to the old tradition of a unified humanity, allied with the Sphinx and others. A republic, with well-ordered ranks of military, technocrats, academics. They ever seek unity, even by laser when Parliament so decrees.
The Empire of Man split off from the Loyalists over the issue of non-human alliances. They are extremely well-armed.
The Mercantile League is more a collection of mega-corporations than worlds. They cooperate, thrive, trade, exploit, ever expanding in meritocratic competition.
The Moot nominally expresses the general will of dozens of planets operating under a libertarian ethic, suspicious of authority. These worlds are the promised land of 21st century web/game/alternative culture, for better or worse.
Plunder Space is the border region between the authorities above and Bug territory, and opens onto unexplored space. Individual worlds have a wide variety of government types. Treaties have declared this zone to be neutral ground for the powers listed above, though they all seek influence here.
There are other significant powers in the area.
The Vargr are an intelligent race created by humans from a blend of non-human but terrestrial genes. They are mostly canine. Bred in great numbers and packed into their own colony ships, some time-lost, they are a significant if un-unified power. They have a bewildered but ferocious culture of their own in a corner of Plunder Space. Cetaceans have been less successfully uplifted.
The Zhodani humans have been gengineered for psionic powers, and have a culture built with the expectation of these powers. Telepaths sniff out criminals, and heal them psychically. A rigid class structure mirrors the genetic distribution of powers. The colony ships were time lost; the Zhodani have been developing on the far side of Plunder Space since around AD 1800.
Deodanths are also gengineered humans. They breed absolutely true. All male, their sperm displaces or enslaves the genome of the eggs they enter. Deodanths always father deodanth clones. Uniformly brilliant and superb physical specimens, they have total recall, perfect pitch, perfect vision, consciously controlled homeostatic processes, and other improvements including black photosynthetic skin. They are also uniformly psychotic, schizophrenic, and hyper-aggressive. It is speculated that some of the first generations seized control of the project and tweaked the genome in perverse megalomania. Despite these drawbacks, there seem to be enclaves of deodanth culture where they cooperate. They make incredible music and raid worlds. Deodanths are monsters that terrify, and most powers would exterminate them if they could. The Deodanths have rampaged among some non-humans as well.
Phraints are aliens with their own belt of worlds. Upright and four-limbed, perhaps resembling a mantis, they have exoskeletons and compound eyes. The phraints experienced years of devastation at the hands of deodanths, the first “humans” they encountered, and long treated any human as they would a deodanth. There are several sub-species with different exoskeletal colors. Humans associate phraints with a cold logic.
Shymen are probably an alien race. They refuse to talk about themselves. They interact only remotely or through robots, which often are humanoid. Some speculate that the Shymen are robots, but they deny it. They are interested in trade and knowledge, and build outposts rather than colonies.
There are other intelligent species. However, though life bearing planets are not rare, intelligent life is.