Earth used to be a nice place to live, they say. Yes, there were wars, and famines, and sickeningly unnecessary deaths every day, but we understood them, or thought we did. We thought we could make things better, if we just tried hard enough. Modern science, medicine, knowledge: in time, these things would triumph over ignorance and darkness.
We were wrong.
We made great strides in politics and peace, somehow, after the mess that the 20th century had been. After a few ill-considered wars in the 2000s and 2010s, popular opinion was thrilled when the more peaceful nations decided to work together to curb the menace posed by the aggressions of others. The initially loose coalition of Pacific nations opposed to war solidified into the UCCNZFJ (United Countries of Canada, New Zealand, Fiji and Japan), which achieved an unexpected coup both in the international media and also in the private power-brokering rooms of the UN. Countries with nuclear missiles were encouraged to accept advisors on international relations from the UC's member states, and even to hand over control of some of their arsenals to these impartial countries that swore declarations never to launch them. A tentative peace began across most of the world, slowly solidifying to become the status quo by the mid-2060s.
And science progressed, certainly: after the networking and connectivity boom of the early 21st century, hard technology soon followed suit, and mankind finally made its way into space. As soon as Faster-Than-Light drives were invented with the discovery of Deimium1) to fuel them, space exploration became possible. Given the volatility of the fuel, it was impossible to carry very much at all, but even the 10-light-year radius around earth which became visitable within one FTL jump was plenty to keep everyone busy for years. Mankind spread out into the solar system and beyond, mining, measuring, investigating. Terraforming was still a science in its infancy, though, so only one true colony of a hundred souls was set up in 2069 on Tau Leyti, a nearly-habitable planet only one FTL jump from Earth. Elsewhere, great space freighters shuttled back and forth to the space stations orbiting mining moons, bringing valuable resources back to Earth to build and fuel more spaceships. They became a relatively common thing: not as common as cars or planes yet, but ownership spread out to ordinary people who fancied a more extraordinary lifestyle. Merchants, prospectors, playboys, gangsters and pop stars rubbed shoulders in the UCSS Tokyo2) before jumping out of orbit to whichever solar system they'd decided to visit that day.
But on Earth itself, everything slowly went… odd. Around a decade ago now, there were the first reports of apparitions. Details varied from place to place and culture to culture, but for a few months the media feasted on details of what seemed to be real-life ghost stories and fairytales coming true: a child snatched off the street by shadow-monsters that failed to show up on CCTV; a hiker in remote woods being found bleeding to death with all his skin flayed off; a group of miners' bodies found huddled together deep underground, apparently having all died of simultaneous asphyxiation although oxygen levels were normal. But then it became apparent that the problem wasn't confined to a few headline-grabbing stories, and wasn't something that was going to go away. Over time, it escalated. It became the norm to find people dead of heart attacks having hidden in cupboards or under their beds. Cliffside paths were abandoned after a rash of deaths that didn't appear to be suicides. The tunnel under Mont Blanc was closed after a bus-load of schoolchildren went in one side and came out the other with everyone but the driver eviscerated in their seats. Shift workers went on strike after working and travelling in the dark was statistically proven to cut your life expectancy by decades, and sales of night-lights went through the roof. Of course, there were those - fêted as heroes in the media, as the dawn of hope - who fought back, those who got away and lived to tell the tale: if you were confident enough, well-armed enough, could run fast enough, maybe you had a chance. And hope never died that some kind of logic could be found which would explain what was going on - governments poured billions into scientific research and careful documentation of every occurrence, in the belief that eventually a pattern must appear. But the Apparitions, as they became known, continued worsening every year, and no-one seemed to be able to find anything to stop them: not science, not prayer, not hope.
The space colony at Tau Leyti was, for a while, a beacon of humanity's progress. Ten light years from home, on a temperate planet with not-quite-breathable atmosphere, a hundred humans lived for a decade in a constantly expanding bio-dome. Fêted as heroes in their many home nations, they slowly pushed back the boundaries of science to develop true terraforming technology. Even more astonishingly, they seemed to be completely free of Apparitions: not one horrifying sight or unexplainable death was reported in the first eight years of station occupancy. Unfortunately, this was not to last: on the 8th of November, 2078, a routine cargo ship docked at Tau Leyti, bringing food and scientific supplies. Within an hour, everyone in the station was dead. Data recordings salvaged later show glimpses of the destruction, with the dome's inhabitants fighting against monstrosities that appeared to be the cargo ship's original crew, horribly dismembered and pieced back together, and totally impervious to what little firepower the colony had. These mutilated bodies were recovered by the investigatory mission, and it was confirmed that they had died well before attacking the colony: possibly even prior to making the FTL jump away from Earth. Nobody survived the bloodbath, although a small number of bodies were found hiding outside the bio-dome, where they had died slowly and painfully of oxygen starvation. The station was never recolonised.
Dire as the situation seemed, the Tau Leyti situation brought world governments together, and pointed at a possible hope: the colony there had been safe until something arrived from Earth that day. Therefore, it might be possible for humanity to simply relocate to another solar system and escape this menace, if things were monitored carefully so no such monsters could make the trip. (A working party was set up to establish exactly how this could be done, given that no-one understood the nature of the 'monsters.') A destination was selected: this being the planet of Elentis 227a, 100 light-years or 10 standard FTL jumps from home. Technology needed to be developed to store enough Deimium in one ship for a fleet of spaceships to travel so far, and to give a good chance of survival at the other end of the journey. Scientists from every country focused on the effort, and within a little under three years an exploratory fleet of ships with a thousand people aboard departed from Earth orbit on October 23, 2081. The brightest and best of the scientific community went: biologists, physicists and engineers, taking with them the most advanced terraforming equipment that Tau Leyti had developed before its destruction, as well as significantly more firepower than that doomed population had had. The governments, desperately needing popular support in the face of apparently unbeatable odds, named this fleet of ships humanity's Salvation, while news articles eagerly speculated on 'New Earth' and what it would be like to live there.
Very soon after the departure of the Salvation fleet, however, things got a lot worse. While civilian ships were hastily equipped with better fuel bays, or retrofitted with FTL drives, or both, in the hope of being ready to follow in due course, their hopeful crews were being decimated by daily horrors. By the time the fifth weekly FTL communication had beamed back from the fleet, telling Earth it was still on course and should arrive at Elentis 227a within the month, barely half the world's population remained to hear it. Almost every day, it seemed, another city would be wiped out by plague, or earthquake, or tentacles. Most people started staying at home, too scared to go out, watching the catastrophes unfold on streaming news channels. Business and trade ground to a halt, and governments and security services around the world started to collapse. Perhaps that's why, on the morning of the 15th December 2081, wide-eyed news anchors had to tell the world that information had leaked from the U.S.A, Russian and Chinese governments implying that their mothballed nuclear arsenals were no longer under their direct control. Various spokespeople blustered at length, trying to reassure the public that this was probably merely an annoying hacker trying to show the world what they could do, and it was very unlikely that they'd actually be able to launch anything at all…
Anybody with access to a spaceship ran, carrying what they could with them. The first casualties were actually the hundreds who died in the terminal at the UCSS Tokyo, running for their ships, as one of the orbiting Canadian battleships fired all its weapons at once at the spaceport. Those who did make it into space watched, horrified, as the Earth lit up in mushroom clouds across its entire surface below them.
Those that remained - less than a hundred ships in total - hurriedly regrouped and checked their status. Between them, they had a good number of FTL capable ships, enough supplies to survive for a few months, and enough fuel on the one Princess-class tanker that was left to get them all to the known destination of the Salvation fleet. It was quickly agreed that that was where they should go, hopefully there to find some way to survive in space and escape the horrors that had unfolded on Earth. As the captains and pilots busied themselves preparing the jump, those with no tasks to do watched the last sight of their home in the monitor screens, patches of white light still blooming across continents as they jumped away.