THE GALAXY BEING
In 1963 Allan Maxwell, a brilliant radio expert and electronics engineer, developed a way to transmit microwaves through the fourth spatial axis, thereby allowing for effective faster than light communications, and established contact with a blue-glowing dimensionally transcendent nitrogen-cycle radiation eater from the Andromeda galaxy.  Unfortunately, due to poor hiring choices (a little ambition makes for a dangerous temp) a certain unfortunate equipment-based decision was made, and said entity was accidentally drawn onto Earth. Emitting flesh-burning microwave radiation and creating violent local atmospheric disruption merely by existing and moving around, the alien’s encounters with human beings in a desperate (and failed) effort to find equipment with which to reverse the process were not happy-making ones, and eventually It ended up back in at the radio station surrounded by police and local army elements.
After saving Maxwell’s wife from bleeding to death through a hole in her throat by cauterizing the injury (one of the police officers surrounding the station was a wee bit trigger-happy), the alien demonstrated its ability to psychokinetically stop machine gun bullets and issued a stern warning to terrestrials about the dangers of dealing with alien life forms through violence, given the immeasurable power and low tolerance for violent fools of some of the civilizations out there. It then somewhat confusingly disintegrated the radio tower, because what says superior civilization like the random destruction of other people’s way of making a living?
The alien would then go on to dissolve itself, so it wouldn’t be tracked to Earth by the authorities of its own world – personal contact with unknown aliens from beyond civilized space was strictly forbidden, and personal contact with warlike unknown aliens was double dog forbidden. (What it did not mention was that the “illegal contact clean-up crew” often used fairly extreme methods to eliminate knowledge of the contact from the alien world. It felt it had brought Allan Maxwell enough trouble already).
The government line was that a crazed scientist in a spaceman costume full of radioactives had run amuck, and although there were a lot of witnesses there wasn’t too much physical evidence (photos were badly blurred by radiation), there weren’t so many that the US government couldn’t afford bribes, the internet didn’t exist yet, the alien had left no body, and eventually the Culver City Spaceman furore died down. The government of course didn’t buy its own line – too many stories in agreement, too many indications of strange radiation, the fine molecular dust of the radio tower scattered miles downwind. Although Maxwell wasn’t too agreeable about helping – he feared that without adequate precautions, further attempts at communications with things Out There might have even worse consequences – the Army forces seized control of the radio station once there was no longer any signs of the alien, and although Maxwell had taken the precaution of taking his equipment apart, the officer in charge refused to let him take any of it away.
Having lost the radio station, and somewhat tainted by the whole “spaceman scandal” and the deaths, in spite of a US government influenced investigation clearing him of responsibility, Maxwell eventually found a place teaching electronics at a small Pacific northwest university, puttered around in his shed with ever more sensitive electronic detection equipment and writing some philosophical articles based on some of the things the alien told him. Were the underlying electromagnetic forces sustaining the universe conscious in some way? Did the electrical forces of the brain somehow persist after death? God, energy, matter, infinity – in some way the same? His writings would be fairly successful with the counter-culture crowd of the late 60s and 70s, somewhat to his wife’s embarrassment – although one might note to her credit that she was never quick to blame protesters for being shot by policemen.
And then in 1977 US government researchers established contact with the Web of Hercules , and shit got real.
Contact with alien civilizations has not destroyed human civilization, but there have been a couple close calls: the Chinese had to nuke that research ship in the Pacific when the machinery started merging with the crew, the Imskian effort to turn their microwave link into a matter transmitter facilitating an invasion of Earth by way of France only failed due to a mutual misunderstanding of image standards and optical wavelengths which prevented the Imskians from taking the necessary precautions their being less than one inch tall would call for,  and nobody is sure what happened in Siberia that converted nearly a cubic mile of Siberian Tundra into neutrinos. Of course, there are problems with even the more beneficent species: The Web of Hercules gave a fine demonstration how a moderately dickish alien superintelligence can string a less developed species along for years and years with scattered bits of most useless knowledge and alien science while carrying out a thorough scientific investigation of their culture, biology, thought, etc. But then if they hadn't been jerks humanity might have been less prepared for contact with the Exchange, which nowadays is only allowed contact with people having little or no authority, to prevent them from selling the planet for the alien equivalent of magic beans.
In any event, it seems most alien races aren’t interested in picking up the phone. There have been only a couple dozen sustained contacts, many aliens apparently cutting contact once they got a basic gander at humanity, and quite a few others being so alien as to make communication efforts largely futile. (Although some are persistent. After twenty years, we have managed to agree on the meanings of “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” with a six-dimensional swarm of dark-matter intelligences somewhere on the edge of the local cluster).
Due to the clear risks, communication with aliens is strictly regulated, and certain forms of advanced electronic equipment are even more tightly regulated than high explosives in our world, and there is nowhere on Earth one can erect a radio station without the government and an international inspection team getting a look in. Although most aliens aren’t interested in accelerating the progress of a race as backwards and aggressive as ourselves, thanks to a few alien do-gooders there has been considerable technological progress beyond OTL. Energy is cheap, as is synthetic food, and computers have developed to the stage of weak AI (which eliminated so many jobs that most western governments have made a 30 hour work week mandatory to avoid putting a third of the population on the dole). There have been a few technological whoopsies, such as the Great Unfolding’s providing humanity with a means of preventing atomic explosions, which led to the third world war of 1993-1996. (As a result the Soviet Union is now the Federated Russian Republics, while the north/south Chinese border still remains somewhat fluid).
With the existence of contact with alien life becoming public knowledge in the 80s (the need to make sure no private accidental messing around with microwaves led to disaster made it inevitable) made the Culver City Spaceman story come back into public consciousness, and although the government was very reluctant to admit that they had been bullshitting the public on such as scale, the full story finally came out, and Allan Maxwell was honored with a belated Nobel prize in 1990.
There is a strong push to cut all contact with aliens, due to risks physical and mental both. Aside from the odds of some small-scale illegal station letting something Very Bad into the computer networks or failing to master by now the very comprehensive protocols meant to prevent it being used as a teleportation system, helpful-minded aliens have noted that while the odds of our getting in contact with aggressive races physically close enough to come visiting by non-transmitter means are low, they aren’t zero, either: aiming our transmissions entirely outside the galaxy is probably the safer bet. And there’s always the possibility that some alien superintelligence might just talk us into exterminating ourselves or completely modifying our culture for “our own good”: it’s certainly the case that contact has been culturally disruptive. The fact that a number of alien intelligences claim to have “proof” of some sort of mind being inherent to the structure of the universe itself has shaken up religion, not helped by the fact they seem unclear as to whether it can be described as good, bad or indifferent (further clouded by the fact that such categories are often orthogonal to alien thinking). Others claim to be in contact with some sort of afterlife, although whether such a thing exists for all races is again unclear: opinions on humans differ, and nearly half of aliens either won’t talk about such matters or claim to not understand. At least one race claims to be part of God, if only in the sense that liver cells are part of a human being.
The Brightly Shining invaded and colonized Earth a while ago, but since they are a non-material race, nobody has noticed.
Nobody can explain the incomprehensible equations professor Takajuo wrote all over the walls of his room before he committed suicide. Hopefully nobody will ever dig the data storage stick out of the dump and find it still usable: the aliens meant well, but the human processing system can in fact be crashed.
The Eppawa Rzong fleet will arrive in eighty-seven years. Much depends on how lucky humans are in their communications in the meantime.
THE HUNDRED DAYS OF THE DRAGON
Another Outer Limits short. Please excuse the Red China demonization, it comes with the era.
The non-OTL Chinese Communist Party leader Lee Chin Sung takes over from Mao in 1963, in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Mao dies in a “tragic airplane accident” shortly afterward. Lee pursues a program of limited free enterprise and Stalinist heavy industrialization with a fair degree of success, raising China to rough co-equivalence to the Soviet Union in terms of economic/military power by the mid-80s, building a nuclear ICBM force sufficient to inflict crippling damage on either the US or USSR, although not as huge as the bloated arsenals of those nations, and heavily investing in scientific R&D combined with extensive scientific and industrial espionage abroad. He strengthens his hand at home with a heavy dose of aggressive Chinese nationalism, taking a hard line on Taiwan, giving North Vietnam the sort of military backing it needed to allow it successfully overrun the South before the US could build up the necessary forces to stop them, and with a combination of terrorism and military threat forces the UK and Portugal to abandon Hong Kong and Macau years early.
With the US and USSR in this world moving into a form of Détente more sincere than OTLs, China is increasingly seen as the main threat to world peace and security, and the US election of 1984 sees the election of popular candidate William Lyons Selby, who (among other things) pushes for international containment of what he politely refuses to call “the yellow peril”, no matter the term’s resurgence. However, President Selby’s early policy moves seem oddly out of character…
The Proteus formula, developed by Chinese biochemists originally in search of something quite different, makes human flesh, cartilage, etc., all but the solid bones itself, temporarily as malleable as clay, and easily reshaped to exact specifications. It allows one to replace ones face with any of a million other faces, to change fingerprints, to remove or add scars, to modify a voice box and change the timbre of a voice, and much more. It allowed the attempted Chinese takeover of the US government in 1984.
It probably not would have happened if US security was tighter (and was never tried against the Soviet Union), but then this was ironically a happier US than ours – the cultural and social shocks of the 60s and 70s were less violent, and no US president or presidential candidate would be assassinated between 1901 and 1984. Security remained light, public access easy, because who would be crazy enough to assassinate a US president in these enlightened days?
President Selby’s first 102 days in office, later to be referred to (inaccurately) by historians as the “100 days of the dragon” saw a breakdown in détente with the USSR, an unprecedented outreach to the People’s Republic, and half a dozen deaths the details of which the US public would not learn of until years later. In the end, a man dental records would determine was not, in fact, William Selby Lions would commit suicide in prison before revealing any larger detail of what had been planned, the Chinese government blandly disclaimed any knowledge of the acts of what it called “radical renegades in Soviet pay” and US politics came very close to boiling over as the very legitimacy of the 1984 election was called into question, along with the identity of the dead man in his cell, the identity of a Chinese “assassin” cremated beyond any identification shortly after his death, the loyalties of the Vice President, now US president, and why were weren’t going to war with China, already.
The last one had a clear if unsatisfying answer: the paranoid Chinese regime had a large nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, and a successful nuclear first strike, even with Soviet support, seemed a gamble unlikely to “pay off” without the deaths of tens of millions of US citizens. The best that could be done was to create a solid US-Soviet alliance to “contain” China and as extensive a technological and economic embargo as could be assembled. There would be no war, just an ongoing struggle.
China was forced to turn inwards after 1985, forced to increasingly depend on its own resources and spend heavily to deter enemies unified, at least for now, against it. His popularity with the masses shaken, Lee Chin Sung turned more brutal, more despotic, reviving the Death of Ten Thousand Cuts, now greatly extended in duration by Science, for all “traitors” against the regime – an ever-broadening category. Strange stories emerged of underground atomic cities, horrible failed experiments in nuclear breeder reactions in the western deserts, giant crèches of children born from artificial wombs and never seeing the sun, curious genetically engineered fungi spreading vastly over square miles of ground.
In the Year of the Snake, 2001 to westerners, the aged and reportedly ill Lee launched his final scheme, a false-flag operation which would draw the Soviet Union and the US into atomic war (the US and Soviet Union détente had become a lot friendly in the 90s with the Soviet economy tanking and the US supposedly “meddling” in the revolt of much of Eastern Europe). Replicant bodies – not merely reshaped Chinese, but clones of actual Americans and Russians then “pressed” into shape – at the right locations, secret tunnels dug under hundreds of miles of Soviet land with atomic lasers, cleverly faked satellite signals and messages and imaginary rockets seen to be launched. Although half the population of China might die – the Soviets at least would not China alone when they grappled with the other - with atomic and laser antimissile systems, deep underground cities with built in food supplies, nuclear breeder reactor power and the ability to rapidly repopulated, China would survive and inherit the Earth.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, and as it turns out neither did the Chinese expect Israeli intelligence, which kept a close eye on all powers with Israel-glassing capacities as a matter of course. The balloon went up but the world failed to blow up, the Soviets demonstrated the limitations of Chinese survival plans by demonstration-dusting part of Gansu with their new super-anthrax (spores guaranteed lethal for up to 200 years!). Lee threatened to unleash even more horrible threats if attacked, but it’s hard to top nearly destroying the world. Fortunately, a coup took place and both the Forbidden City and the small town in Sichuan from with Lee was actually running things  went up in flames. The succeeding war between regime loyalists and revolutionaries quite convinced the US and Soviets that the threat was ended and that sticking their softer appendages in the hornet’s nest would be a bad idea.
Today, the New Chinese People’s Combine, if not very democratic is at least a much less aggressive nation than Lee’s People’s Republic. The economy having been largely wrecked by the civil war and the lengthy dedication of most national resources to surviving a nuclear holocaust while hiding the details from outsiders (a bunch of cities were essentially _roofed over_ as a security measure), much is being rebuilt as it were from scratch, and since under such circumstances simple addition of inputs can make a big difference, growth rates are high. Of course, the current leadership has bigger ambitions: dominated by the children of the crèches and the underground cities, the new generation of elites has a technocratic and utopian vision which is bold, daring, and frankly a bit creepy to outsiders. It does not help that the inner governing council, in their fanatical dedication to preventing a “cult of personality” from ever arising again, are not only nameless, but faceless (thank to Proteus, very close to literally so).
The US in the year 2015 is still a somewhat paranoid nation, pardonably so due to their nation nearly being destroyed by Sinister Plots twice in fifty years. US presidents remain even more heavily guarded than OTL, and advanced genetic and biometric identification techniques remain SOP for all individuals in positions of government and military authority. People expect the US government to have Secret Scientific Projects, and aren’t so much annoyed by that as by the government protestations that no, they don’t. Smoking remains common on TV and the movies, thanks to the development of cancer-free (well, mostly) tobacco by genetic engineers in the 1980s. Race relations are more complex than ever (see below).
Fashions nowadays are fashions in faces as well as in dress; although identity issues and the problem of freaking out your family means most people will stick with the same face for decades (aside from reshaping it into a more youthful version as they age), many of the young and trendy/disgruntled or the variously-aged criminal  change their faces often better than annually. (Among the young and female, the Brazilian-Polynesian Fusion Look is in this year). Further developments of Proteus means scar-and-stretch free plastic surgery is a relative snap, fat removal is generally easy, soft body parts are more often enhanced than not (nudge nudge wink wink) and countless idiots with a homebrew batch of Proteus and a Teach Yourself Body Modification book mangle themselves horribly every year to the point of requiring extensive surgery and the aid of master body-shaping artisans to fix. Really effective means of changing skin color as well as body and face shape have really _seriously_ complicated the issue of racial definitions and boundaries, and led to some really nasty family fights in both minority and majority ethnicity families. And then are the SERIOUS rebels and punks, who rebuild themselves into genuinely non-human forms, limited only by the underlying bone structure (and some wacky biologists are working on ways to modify bone growth, so don't depend on that remaining a constant).
US colonization of the solar system is ongoing in partnership with Japan and the European nations. There's a certain amount on "eggs in multiple baskets" thinking: the Almost Apocalypse failed to come off, but the "false flag" operations still killed some millions of Americans and Soviets, and the Chinese civil war killed more people than all the deaths of WWII. The Soviet Union, without the Chinese Menace to help hold it together, slowly dissolved 2002-2012, although the Slavic core has managed to hold together: the New Russian Union is trying to get back into the Space game, but getting the funding together remains difficult.
 Nobody is entirely sure if Lee Chin Sung was actually in either place, and loyalists rallied behind three different “Lees” all of which turned out to be Proteus-modified doubles. Nobody is sure how many doubles there were during Lee Chin Sung’s last, paranoid days, but there were dozens at least. Some loyalists claim that Lee had been replaced years before 2001 and it was a crazy _double_ who planned Armageddon. Others claim that the real Lee is still alive, sustained by Unnatural Science at the age of 94 plus and wearing a new face, planning his return to power.
 There are laws in various places preventing known felons from changing their faces without notifying the government of their new look, but they are widely disregarded.
THE ARCHITECTS OF FEAR
The Thetan (Beta Hydri Theta) was a strange and fearsome invader. Only vaguely humanoid, bidpedal, with backwards-jointed bird legs ending in fierce (if shaggy) claws, long, double-jointed arms with which it knuckle-walked when in a hurry, covered in black, oily scales. Its torso was broad and flat, as was its head. Its blood was copper-based, it metabolized nitrogen rather than oxygen. Two slits for a nose and two slits in a conical muzzle for a mouth – back home it’s ancestors did not so much eat as suck in the floating microlife of its dense atmosphere – reptilian eyes with a spectrum shifted deep into the infrared, and a skull-topping dome of fine bony latticework that did not hold its brain but rather processed nitrogen and expelled digestive gasses . A being most alien. A being which, however, did not exist.
In the year 1999, the cold war raged on, although the cast had changed a bit, with the United Asian Collective pushing a stagnating Soviet union out of Red Menace No.1 spot, a genuinely united western Europe (sans Britain, but what you gonna do?) taking a more equal position to the US in the Anti-Red coalition, and to everyone’s surprise India and its allies actually emerging as a genuine third power rather than a running gag. With ever more sophisticated space-based weapons systems getting increasingly hard to keep track of, the dangers of an accidental nuclear war were higher than ever, and after an accidental firing of an automated orbital “second-strike” rocket nearly vaporized Los Angeles (it was rerouted just in time to the Nevada desert), a group of dedicated and brilliant scientists decided that humanity needed a common enemy. This was the fourth “near miss” since the start of the thermonuclear age and the third since the Cuban crisis: the odds of humanity making it through a fifth, a sixth, and so on, decreased exponentially.
A push to militarize space from the start had as one beneficial consequence the earlier development of powerful space-based telescopes, and by the late 90s a multitude of extra-solar planets had been discovered and many had undergone close spectroscopic analysis. One of the most interesting cases was Beta Hydri Theta , which while having less water than Earth and a mostly Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen atmosphere, appeared to have a lot of complex organic molecules in said atmosphere, and thermal analysis indicated quite livable temperatures. Theta was therefore much in the news as the likeliest location for off-Earth life yet found.
They had a planet: now they just needed a Thetan.
Needless to say, the “rebuild a human being into a mock-Thetan, have him land on the UN building terrace in a “scout ship”  and threaten the UN with a “death ray” while making it clear he was only the first scout, and then be killed so he could be dissected and shown to be most likely a Thetan” plan didn’t go off flawlessly, with something going wrong with the lander’s steering mechanism so it ended up in a swamp in New Jersey rather than in Manhattan. The “Thetan” made it back to the New York research lab where he had been rebuilt on an entirely inadequate supply of nitrogen and with a load of duck shot in his back, and perished right in front of his wife, who had been kinda left out of the whole “we’re going to turn your husband into a space monster and send him on a suicide mission For The Good of Mankind” thing.
(The self-destruct mechanism for the lander, designed to keep Earthlings from discovering the too-terrestrial nature of most of its equipment, did in fact work flawlessly, and blew to bits three duck hunters. Their dog, which had sensibly gotten lost, survived.)
It proved impossible to keep the whole thing quiet, especially since the rather angry wife blabbed and the scientists were too bummed and in any event uncertain about what to do next to, say, dissolve her in acid. It became a national furore, and the consequent call for close monitoring of scientists and their work, allowing only those who took loyalty oaths and were properly patriotic to work on major projects, etc. would eventually cripple US scientific development for over a generation, but that’s another story.  Things were not helped by one of the scientists sharing some of the technology they had secretly developed for the project with the Reds, feeling it might destabilize the Cold War if the US alone had access (most notably a hand-held laser with 100 times the punch of anything available to the armed forces, and a spaceship hull alloy lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel). Purges of academia and government institutions followed.
Ironically, even if everything had worked exactly as planned, the "Scarecrow" would have only worked for three years at most: genetic studies unknown to the project members, being carried out by scientists entirely uninvolved in the conspiracy would have made the Thetan's human origins impossible to conceal by 2003.
The modified Rhesus monkey which had been the initial "proof of concept" for the project survived until 2005, creeping out millions of schoolchildren which came to see it in its new home at the New York Museum of natural history.
Although the project and its scientists were roundly condemned, one man was not: Dr. Allen Leighton, the man who had become the Thetan. Whatever people’s concerns about the unpatriotic, internationalist and probably commie-inspired “project scarecrow”, the fact that a man would face death and physical torture and body horror worse than death in the name of world peace was admirable enough for most to forgive him. The head surgeon on the project promoted the notion, in interviews, magazine articles, and a hastily written book, that if one man could sacrifice so much, could not the rest of us try a little harder to live in peace? The response was tepid, not helped by the fact that Leighton’s widow refused to give interviews on what she called “the idiocy” and protected her fatherless daughter from reporters with the fury of a she-bear.  But, in the end, the project did change the world, just not in the ways its architects had hoped.
The surgical, biochemical and biological innovations of the project have been adopted and added to. In 2015, both East and West blocks have settlers on Mars, modified to survive the cold and thin air, adaptations less extreme than those required to make a man a Thetan. Other projects are underway to make men and women capable of surviving in zero gravity indefinitely, and to survive in vacuum for extended periods: the asteroids beckon. Still other projects, generally kept secret from the general public, seek to make people who can survive high levels of radiation, lowered oxygen and high ozone, and live off weeds and bugs. The Thetan’s “death ray” has been adapted to create a new system of laser anti-missile defenses, which made the fifth “near miss” quite survivable. Of course, the eternal race of offense vs. defense continues, but between the inward turn of most governments in the post-Thetan “OMG INTERNATIONALISTS” panic and the slowdown in technological progress, humanity has been given a breathing space.
Telepathy is also in the news: the existence of psychic abilities had been proven finally in the 1970s by the Rhine Research Center after some new leadership hired a few professional magicians to weed out the obvious (to magicians, not psychic researchers) fakes, but proved to be so weak a phenomenon as to be largely useless for effective long-range communication or weaponizing (much to the military's regret, and in spite of initially apparently successful work with goats ). Occasionally a strong link would arise between two psychically talented individuals, allowing them to know over a distance of thousands of miles if the other was alive or dead or suffering, but this did not extend to more elaborate communications, and also required the forming of a close emotional bond between the two first, which led to much awkwardness in government-mandated experiments.
Only recently have techniques to rework the brain by surgery and cybernetics (mostly in Japan) finally reached the point where the telepathic ability can be enhanced. As yet there have been no true mind-readers created, let alone mind-controllers (which some argue is an SF trope having nothing to do with how telepathy actually works) but there are now several "star subjects" which can establish empathic relations with almost anyone. Unfortunately from the point of view of military men, this just makes them emotionally involved with their contacts: it apparently works both ways.
Perhaps, as eyes turn to the planets and stars, a new generation arises in Asia, and the Soviet Union undergoes slow internal convulsions, the Cold War will finally grind to a stop. Perhaps new links from mind to mind will create a sense of fellowship that even oceans between cannot break. And even if the unspeakable does still happen, the techniques created to build a global scarecrow give the children of humanity a fighting chance, a chance that even if the world burns, on other planets and drifting space rocks, and in the barren and lonely parts of a ravaged earth, something of us will survive, even if it does not quite fit the definition of “human” any longer.
 Yes, it farts from the top of its head. Deal with it.
 Seventh planet, yes, but Beta Hydri is hotter than the sun, there are a couple more extra-close “Mercurys” and the dense atmosphere of Theta retains heat.
 Sent up disguised as a new weather satellite
 In any event, the Asians, fearing similar disloyalty among its own scientists, launched their own purges, which helped even things out a little. Japan, where most people thought the whole thing had been pretty cool, ended up world leader in R&D for a while.
 With the sort of contrived coincidence one might expect from cheap melodrama, Mrs. Leighton didn’t inform her husband that her seemingly incurable fertility problem had resolved itself in the happiest manner until _after_ the initial modifications had passed the “irreversible” stage.
 It turns out some goats are just really, really sensitive to telepathic energies.
THE MAN WITH THE POWER
The future, for the first time in quite a while, is looking somewhat hopeful. Although much of Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the United States lie in ruin, while sinister super-beings lurk in hiding, the new cosmic energy condensers have at last brought the promised dream of the nuclear age to reality – power, limitless and almost too cheap to meter. The resource crunch has been greatly alleviated by the fact that if power is cheap and abundant, recycling is far more practical. Beams of cosmic energy send ships flying to the Moon, the asteroid belt – and beyond. Now as long as someone doesn’t do something crazy like try and use the power cosmic  to drag one of those asteroids down from the sky…
It was in some ways a more successful world than ours. The Soviet plans for computerized “red plenty” were successful: the third world successfully broke out of the slow-grow trap which so much of it was mired in OTL before the 90s: China found its own somewhat peculiar path to growth. Unfortunately, the accelerated global growth also led to more pollution, more global warming, and a rapid exhaustion of rare elements. Atomic power was energetically tackled as a substitute for the coal and shale-oil that was poisoning the skies and choking the planet, but the atomic fuels were limited in quantity, and breeder reactors were politically infeasible after a couple truly unfortunate fast-breeder failures. Due to a different technological development path, solar panels remained pricey and fusion as usual twenty to thirty years into the future. The world demanded more clean energy , more raw materials, but where were they to come from? Space held promise: the Moon was poor in heavy elements, but probes sent to the asteroid belt located great tumbling masses of rock and iron rich in rare earths and atomic fuel elements. However, as the 21st century got under way, the technology did not yet exist to send ships out there, and return to earth with raw materials, all while keeping costs per unit retrieved lower than those where such elements were extracted from poor and scanty ores back on earth.
And then a man called Harold J. Finley, a physics teacher at a small California college, came up with a solution. Of sorts.
The Link-Gate, an electronic implant built directly into the frontal lobe, allowed the human mind to do what technology could not do alone – focus the infinite sea of cosmic energy on which all reality floated, and of which the known electromagnetic spectrum was only a tiny part. With it the mind could exert the force to move and manipulate matter on a massive scale, to mine the asteroids or move them into more useful orbits without the use of equipment too bulky and massive to be economically moved between Earth and the Asteroid belt. The US space program seized upon this new technology and paid for an operation which made Finley himself (who would permit nobody else to take the risk) the guinea pig. Things went a bit pear-shaped after it turned out that 1. The amount of energy that could be channeled had no clear upper limit and 2. The subconscious mind also had access to the steering wheel on the jalopy. A number of people disintegrated  later, including Mr. Finely himself and the only other working model of the Link-Gate, the project was put on the back burner.
“What one man can do, another can do.” – Various.
Although the exact design of the Link Gate was kept secret by Finley to keep his ideas from being stolen (a life of being put upon had left him somewhat paranoid), he had been forced to give enough away when first convincing people he wasn’t a kook that given a large number of very intelligent people working very hard on the problem, getting the rest of it wasn’t too hard. And in spite of the unfortunate results of the Mark One model, essentially infinite free energy (not to mention the potential of possibly moving mountains with ones mind) was too much of a carrot for people to not convince themselves that the Mark Two would be all better. And the same reasoning of course applied to the Soviets when their spies reported back on what the Americans had been working on. Control issues? Well, are there no tamper-proof explosive collars in the Worker’s paradise? No mind-altering drugs? No implantable explosives, if the collar thing didn’t work out? No hypnotic compulsions?
The Mind Wars were brought on by several things: increasing degradation of the world environment with attendant food shortages, famines, civil unrest, etc.; raw material shortages: the contest for control of the asteroids, which were supposed to solve many of these problems, (but it would be cooler if one power controlled access to them, wouldn't it); and fear that the other side’s mind-controlled, bomb-implanted, drug-pacified super-soldiers would get out of control (or, worse, would be _effectively_ controlled). Not to mention various mysterious earthquakes, explosions, massive land slips, etc. that each accused the other side of triggering. Things got ugly very fast.
(The planned use of carefully drugged and lobotomized human brains connected to Link-Gates as sources of power for industry and urban centers was a project still in the process of “getting the bugs out” when the war started, and was not continued afterwards).
The Super-Soldiers or H-Womds (from Human Weapons of Mass Destruction) both wrecked half the planet and also saved it from even worse, striking down atomic bombs with their minds in flight, burying or tossing into space burning and shattered nuclear reactors, and in other ways minimizing the amount of radioactive death that would linger after. They also, across distances of hundreds of miles, burned cities, shattered mountains, set off volcanoes, created earthquakes, and out in space some of them threw asteroids at the Earth (fortunately they either had poor aim over distances of millions of miles or other H-Womds deflected them). And some went rogue, one way or another: some went mad beyond the abilities of any control protocols to manage them; some destroyed themselves and everyone around them; others managed to somehow survive destroying the elaborate mechanisms designed to kill them if they deviated at all from orders. The mechanisms designed to keep them from drawing more than a certain amount of power didn’t always work the way they were supposed to, either. A quarter of a million square miles of Canada is still only slowly stabilizing as rock molten all the way down to the asthenosphere slowly cools from the top down.
Powerful as they were, they were still human and mortal and as easily injured as anyone else. A H-Womd could throw a screen of destroying energies miles high over a city to stop bombs and planes and missiles, but that didn’t help if he (mostly he: for some reason, sexism ran rather high in deciding who got god-like powers) stepped on a rusty nail and got tetanus. The development of methods to detect other H-Womds by their exertion of power brought the war to a rapid mutual-destruction close. Nobody won: neither the US or USSR
were in any shape to do anything aside from starting to clear up the rubble afterwards, and Europe, China, and various other countries had been drawn in due to alliances, Super-Soldier programs of their own or just became “innocent bystanders” as various mentally unstable supermen wrecked havoc across the planet.
On the positive side, after the large scale dieoff from the war and some very nasty winters, and a serious reduction in planetary industrial production, the resource shortages weren’t as bad for a while.
In the year 2045, thirty years after the war, things are looking up. New centers of power have arisen in India, S. America, and Africa, a new functional government has arisen in South China, and something fairly sizable is assembling itself out of bits and pieces of the former US, Canada, and Mexico. The human element has been eliminated from the project of drawing power from the cosmic energy substrate, and while you could still use it to write your name on the Moon, that requires bulky,complex and not universally available equipment, so unfortunate personal impulses are not so easily given form. Of course, new and destructive weapons could be built as dangerous as any Super-Soldier, but after the Mind Wars, who would be so silly? (Or at least that’s what say placating politicos pontificating on public programming.)
Most of the H-Womds died in the war or were murdered in one way or another soon after: only a few elderly, carefully monitored specimens still exist under the jurisdiction of the New League of Nations, using their powers in aid of various public works (H-Womds are still capable of focusing and manipulating the cosmic energies in more complex ways than any single machine can): all are individuals very carefully psychological vetted back in the day, and also usually on a regimen of drugs that keeps them in deep dreamless sleep or cheerful daylight euphoria. No more than can be counted on the fingers of one hand have managed to gain the public and government trust to the extent where they are trusted on a regimen free of happy pills of some sort. Far more worrisomely, frequent blips on the screens of sensitive detectors indicate there are people manipulating the energy field without government remit or monitoring: such incidents never continue for long enough to pin them down closer than a single city, and wartime “draw them out by flattening the city” methods are of course not practical. The existence of hidden people with terrifying power is a constant sour note in the public consciousness: more worrying to governments is that these people may not be simply hiding but may be working for agents of other governments or secret societies of various sorts: still worse is the possibility that it’s not just survivors of the war - someone may be again building new direct-brain-link interfaces, something illegal in every recognized state and carrying the death penalty in a majority of them. Suspicion has fallen on the various Transhumanist churches, which have mushroomed into existence with the clear evidence that a little technological meddling can indeed make humans as Gods.
In the deeps of space, a spherical mass of rock some miles in diameter flies on through the void. Inside are air, water, and life: energy for light, power, and recirculation of air and water come from the mad god of this place, a particularly adept manipulator of cosmic energy who got rid of his control implants at the cost of a chunk of his brain. He fled into space from enemies real and imagined, but not without taking a large chunk of landscape rolled into a ball, and a few thousand humans to keep him company (now several hundred: he didn’t think through the details of farming very well). Current survivors are cautiously hopeful: he hasn’t killed anyone for suggesting it might be getting to be time to get back to Earth in a while. And they really need to get back: the “Mindlord” is getting shockingly aged and often given to rambling, and if he dies while they are still in space it will not be long before everyone else faces death, whether through freezing, suffocation or starvation.
In a church buried deep in an old salt mine, a man stands, most of his broken body replaced by mechanical parts controlled and powered by a trickle of cosmic energy. The chorus breaks into a hymn of praise for the God which will be.
More pleasant space settlements now are beginning to dot the inner solar system, propelled by harnessed cosmic forces: they would reach further and be more numerous if it were not for the fact that the cutting edge in life support technology kinda dropped back to pre-NASA days when the global economy and R&D spending cratered in the post Mind-Wars mess and jobs for life support systems specialists kinda dried up. Many governments secretly feel the human race needs to spread far and fast: even without transhumanists and other idiots trying once again to put the cosmic power directly into the hands of mentally disturbed people (on some level, most human beings), it’s possible in theory to create a wide-open mechanical gate to the infinite energy sea which in the nanosecond of its existence would create an energy flow capable of vaporizing the Earth.
The underlying energy field extends to the most distant stars, and is bounded neither by space nor time. The energies drawn from it during the Mind Wars, although relatively miniscule on pan-Galactic level, set up vibrations that could be detected across many light years by those in the know, while the steadier and steadily increasing draw in consequent years allows for triangulation, so to speak. The guardians of universal safety and order close in slowly, but steadily.
 Self-conscious Silver Surfer reference.
 For various reasons this world never developed as big a phobia towards nuclear waste as OTL.
 Think the entire output of the NE United states electrical grid passed through the volume of a human body.