Von Neumann probes, or VN probes, are self-replicating spacecraft originally designed for rapid, autonomous exploration and manufacturing. After the discovery of TK-421 and the ensuing evacuation of Earth, the technology was modified to prepare colonies for human arrival.
The first VN probe was built and launched by NASC in 2062 to test the viability of space-based manufacturing. The probe was to travel to the asteroid belt and, using the resources available there, build copies of itself. Although the experiment was surprisingly successful - nearly a thousand probes were constructed in the next forty years - the construction of the West Pacific Space Elevator made the program largely obsolete. In weeks, thousands of already-constructed non-replicating probes were lifted into space and sent to every point of interest within a hundred light years. VN self-replication technology was abandoned.
VN technology was revived when it became clear that the evacuation of Earth was the only way to save humanity from total destruction. Given the time constraints, it simply wasn't possible to wait and hope for the eventual discovery of a garden world - an Earth-like planet with a breathable atmosphere, liquid water, and an environment generally conducive to habitation. Colonies had to be established on remote, inhospitable planets, and these colonies had to hold millions. The old VN probes were modernized and retrofitted by several new corporations to land on planets and establish colonies.
VN: The GameEdit
In VN, you are the head of one of these small corporations. You are responsible for the development, deployment, and improvement of colony-preparation VN technology. At this point, four other corporations are competing for a share of the contracts, but only one has the resources to be a real threat - [competing corp name]. You will compete with these companies to earn cash and, perhaps more importantly, the favor of the supercorps. As you accept and complete contracts, you can use your rewards to license technology from the supercorps. This technology will be incorporated into your VN probe, increasing your chance of success in future missions. Each of the five supercorporations offers unique licensable technologies, and some of these companies refuse to share their technology with any but the most trusted and respected corporations.
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Several small companies were founded to handle the practical engineering required to synthesize dozens of advanced technologies into a self-sufficient, reliable, and effective system. These companies competed for contracts jointly offered by the five supercorporations. With fewer than two hundred years left before TK-421's apocalyptic supernova, there was no time for extensive field tests. After brief trial runs on Earth and Mars, the first five VN machines were sent to establish colonies on candidate worlds 15 light years farther from TK-421. One of the machines malfunctioned en route, while two others failed to construct a functional colony. The colony ships had been sent only a few years after the VN probes departed, and with no supplies or fuel to return, every one of the sixty million colonists headed to the failed colonies was doomed. The three failed companies were dissolved, their intellectual properties sold to the highest bidder.
The Fall of the OligarchyEdit
Immediately after first contact with the newly established colonies, NASC used backdoors it had programmed into their FTL comm buoys to seize control of the colony's communications and administrative systems. This action led to the destruction of the formal alliance between the supercorporations - commonly known as the Oligarchy Pact - and very nearly to a global war. In the end, NASC agreed to remove all of the backdoors in the buoy system, but the alliance was irreparably destroyed. OSI and NASC both wanted control over the human colonies, and each offered a contract for every colonizable planet.