In 2072, Earth and the colonies elsewhere in the solar system are governed by vast megaconglomerates, the largest of which is the TriOptimum Corporation. Most people have little to complain about, though there are rumours of strange research projects on mutated humans locked away in corporate labs.
However, when a TriOptimum employee named Edward Diego, with the help of a hired hacker, released the ethical constraints on a powerful AI named SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) on Citadel Station, everything changed. SHODAN went rogue, killed most of the Citadel inhabitants and transformed many of the rest into cyborgs.
Only the actions of the hacker, overlooked at first by SHODAN, were able to avert the destruction of Earth, as plotted in one of SHODAN’s many plans. The hacker destroyed a mining laser aimed at Earth and jettisoned a group of biological “groves” (laboratories in which SHODAN was developing mutagenic viruses for use on Earth). He then blew up a set of antennae through which SHODAN planned to download her code into Earth’s computers and, finally, destroyed the space station and SHODAN herself. Earth’s close call sent shock waves throughout the world and disturbing indications of similar rogue activity were discovered in several other corporate AIs.
The events on Citadel station have led to a general unrest and rebellion against megacorporate government. The previously ineffectual governments of Earth’s nations were now banding together to form the Unified National Nominate (UNN) and stand up to the suddenly defensive corporations. Governmental controls over business were stepped up, and national governments instituted severe political controls, using newly built-up military forces and secret police to force control over society and business.
Bureaucracy became the watchword of the day and technological development slowed to a crawl, as everything had to be signed and countersigned in triplicate. Attempts were made by the UNN and national governments to take over megacorporate holdings completely, but the corporations were not yet powerless and they made a stand. An ever-widening rift between the public and private sectors developed, as governmental attempts to shut down noncompliant factories were met by well-armed TriOptimum soldiers and other mercenaries.
A wary truce settled between governmental and megacorporate forces and things became stable for a while. Now, thirty-five years later, with technological advances considerably slowed, the world has devolved further into a group of heavily armed rival regions. The UNN maintains strategic control, but has failed to win the hearts and minds of the lower classes. The unsteady truce between the public and private sectors holds shakily in place. Then, UNN Nobel Laureate Marie Delacroix, working under a grant from the dwindling resources of the skeletal TriOptimum corporation, publishes preliminary research findings of a Faster Than Light (FTL) mechanism.
The device works by bending and warping space around the device. However, Delacroix herself has serious concerns about the reliability of the device and its unexplored side effects. Once the rumours of the device are leaked out, the UNN is unable to control public enthusiasm. The UNN allows TriOptimum to develop a prototype, which tests successfully.
TriOptimum then begins production of an FTL starship, the Von Braun, but the UNN refuses to let it out of the naval yards, citing various regulations about tests that must be done before approval can be given. Popular opinion is that the UNN simply doesn’t want to let TriOptimum gain the amount of power that the only working FTL ship would grant it. By 2111, it is clear that the device performs as advertised. However, the potential side effects of its extended use remain unknown.
The device has caught the imagination of the public. With the conditions on Earth worsening and the disappointing results of the in-system colonisation, hopes are high for brighter pastures outside the confines of our solar system. However, the UNN is loath to allow TriOptimum to be the principal beneficiary. Months of debate, negotiation and threatmaking ensue, culminating in the mysterious death of one of the most vocally anti-TriOptimum UNN officials. Before the government/corporate split comes to open war, however, a compromise is reached between the UNN and TriOptimum, brokered by William Bedford Diego, a UNN Navy captain, husband of a TriOptimum board member and the son of the infamous Edward Diego.
The Von Braun will be allowed to make a maiden FTL voyage, but only with an accompanying UNN escort. The military heavy destroyer Rickenbacker will be tethered to the Von Braun for the FTL journey, via a complex set of interlocks between the two ships’ systems. UNN personnel will be stationed aboard the Rickenbacker, ready to deal with any hostile aliens.
A fanciful news video shows hypothetical footage of the two ships facing a fleet of menacing “alien” ships and of the Rickenbacker detaching to fight while the Von Braun escapes. The excitement once again fuels talk of discovering extraterrestrial forms of life, a topic more or less forgotten since exploration of the solar system turned up only a series of barren, lifeless landscapes. Anatoly Korenchkin, a brutally effective TriOptimum executive, is chosen as the captain of the Von Braun, despite Captain Diego’s objections. There are strong and fairly substantiated suspicions that Korenchkin ordered the assassination of the UNN official some months earlier.
Marie Delacroix is appointed the Von Braun’s chief engineer, tasked with keeping her nascent FTL drive functioning. Dr. Delacroix is vocal about preferring a longer period of testing for the FTL drive and goes on record as saying that the ship is not yet ready for the field. However, pressure to launch the mission is growing daily, and the Von Braun/Rickenbacker mission embarks in early 2114. A few months into its historical journey, the situation has begun to deteriorate.
Tension is running high between the civilian elements of the Von Braun and their military counterparts on the Rickenbacker. In addition, Delacroix’s predictions prove to be accurate, as the Von Braun is plagued with numerous malfunctions. The coolant tubes on the engineering deck are constantly leaking, the scrubbers in the air-recirculators on the hydroponics deck have a tendency to pump out pure carbon dioxide and the integration of the core computer system, XERXES, is buggy and inefficient.
These events only exacerbate the tension between the military and civilian elements of the expedition (though there is limited fraternisation between the crew of the Von Braun and that of the Rickenbacker) as a complex web of interpersonal relationships begins to form. Still, after four months in space, it becomes clear that something is going to come to a head. The exact timing and severity of the conflict is all that remains to be determined. And then, the remarkable happens. On June 10, 2114, the transceiver onboard the Von Braun begins receiving fragments of a distress beacon emanating from the Tau Ceti system, billions of miles outside the borders of colonised space.