At Spin Two Swords
The Operation of X Boats
The imperium’s system of X Boats has been in existence for more than 700 years. It is a fairly simple, if not always efficient method of communicating across the grand expanses of Interstellar space. The problem with X Boats is that there is no way to let the system know that a message is ready for delivery. Effectively, X Boats tend to move from subsector to subsector collecting messages for delivery. While X Boats tend to have ‘routes’ through charted space, it is, nonetheless, a slow process to get a message across the Imperium. Unfortunately, there is no other Imperial system besides X Boats for delivering messages and, thus, citizens of the Third Imperium have had to make do with the less than perfect system.
The X Boat system is maintained and, theoretically, improved by the Bureau of Interstellar Communication (BIC). BIC is an enormously powerful branch of the Imperium hierarchy despite its short supply of field agents. At its inception, the X Boat system required pilots and thus X Pilots were a devoted profession within the ranks of the BIC. However, 300 years ago, the decision was made to automate the jump potential of the X Boat and to minimize the power of its impulse engine.
Since that time, BIC has become an agency mostly composed of desk jockeys. It’s main concern is the analysis of performance data to produce the most efficient X Boat routes, control of the integrity of jump points (as well as the availability of fuel at those jump points), the maintenance of operating X Boats, the construction of new X Boats, and the maintenance of Skyhooks (the fixed platforms which collect data and physical cargo for the X Boats, and handle both maintenance and refueling).
BIC has both Sector commanders (Baronets generally) and sub-sector commanders (knights or governors). Both posts are filled by lower nobility. Skyhooks are considered, like Starports, to be the property of the Third Imperium. Their position in out of the way places is often such that they receive little hassle from the locals on this account.
In terms of its functional field duties, BIC is also responsible for investigating the crime of mail tampering, a service they tend to perform in conjunction with either Imperial investigators or Naval investigators.
The Mechanics of Mail Delivery
Each X Boat has a route that takes it, more or less, in a circuit around the Imperium. Systems that have a history of heavy message traffic are generally stopped at more often than systems where message traffic is more slow. Factored into this traffic is also the availability of a fuel source for the X Boat itself.
The X Boat picks up its messages at a Skyhook. The Skyhook is often a fixed location in a system, generally next to a fuel drilling operation and not close to much of what anyone would call civilization. This is preferable to BIC because, of course, they would rather not have to deal with jurisdictional issues should they need to call upon the Imperial Navy. The Boat pulls out of Jump-space near the Skyhook and immediately begins to download information. Meanwhile a pilot from the Skyhook station is flown out to the ship in order to bring it in for maintenance and refueling. The X Boat itself is, otherwise, fully automated.
Information uploaded and downloaded comes in many forms. Obviously, the first things the ship uploads are the new messages to be carried to its next location. Likewise, it downloads the messages it has been asked to send. Additionally, the boat also downloads messages which it recently left at its last few stops. This is so that it can check against redundancy. Generally, a message is carried by as many as 10 X Boats at a time. The first to arrive at the destination leaves the message for dissemination, but future X Boats also check the download logs against their own records to make sure that the message wasn’t corrupted or altered when it was sent. If it detects an anomaly, it will contact the agent at the Skyhook to investigate the problem, inform the field agent to deliver the alternative message (depending on the results of the investigation), and then it will jump to its next location.
The skyhook itself delivers the messages to the habitable planets using regular transmission. These transmissions have a range of about one light-day (around 26,000,000,000 kilometers (173 AU).
The arrival of an X Boat can happen as frequently as twice a day for Core Worlds, but it can also happen as infrequently as once every few years. Not a lot of messages leave low TL worlds. The X Boats visit these places mainly for the various nobles operating in the area.
The longest X Boat route takes 4 years, jumping once every 8 days. The Shortest takes a little under 6 months. The routes run in alternating directions such that the longest lag in message delivery runs a year (with the shortest being obviously 8 days). This is an improvement. In the initial X Boat program, the longest lag time was 4 years.
X Boats and Security
X Boats have anti-hacking software, but aside from that, they are relatively unprotected. Initially, X Boats were armed and escorted, but the system itself has been revised so that this protection is no longer necessary.
First of all, the messaging system of the X Boat carries redundancies. As soon an X Boat arrives at a Skyhook, it can check to see whether other X Boats were carrying similar messages through its previous stops. It cannot know whether the message it is about to deliver is problematic, but it can tell if the message it carried, undelivered was accurate or not, and if it finds discrepancies. If X Boat 2, for instance, shows up at a Skyhook with messages A (to deliver at this stop), B (a copy of a letter delivered at its last stop), and C, and it finds that X Boat 1, delivered a different B at their last stop, it knows that the boat in front of it has been compromised. It is not impossible to change an X Boats messages, but it is necessary to do this for a chain of between 5 and 8 X Boats located 3 parsecs apart in order for the manipulation not to be noticed. It is customary, because of this system of redundancies for planetary powers receiving disturbing news by X Boat, to wait on the next X Boat to arrive in order to verify a message’s validity.
Second, X Boats do not jump from emptiness to emptiness. They always jump next to a Skyhook. Thus, it is easier to arm the Skyhook, which never moves, than to arm the X Boat, which needs fuel. Most Skyhook facilities have the capacity to attack ships waiting in ambush for an X Boat. If needs be, they can also call in the Navy.
Lastly, because the boat is automated, BIC doesn’t really have to worry about the pilot being compromised. This was, initially, the main reason that the BIC began to automate the system: pilots with a hidden agenda rigged messages to start a war between two otherwise friendly planets within an important system. It is a threat that continues to haunt some nobles in the Imperium as it is still conceivable that messages could be tampered with by BIC itself. There is no reason to assume that BIC manipulates messages, but then, how would anyone know. Paranoia and BIC go hand in hand.
X Boats Outside Imperial Control
X Boats have a financial problem, they are obligated to keep up communication between imperial worlds, many of which rarely receive messages. Many nobles, for various reasons, have spoken up about the sheer waste of the X Boat system arguing that it is a drain on public coffers. Though the X Boats have begun to carry the Network of Imperial Communications (NIC), this program is only about a century old. Criticism of the X Boats has historical precedence from when the project was first green-lighted.
As a result, one corporation, the reimagined merc organization Trist Arrow, has picked up the slack in the system by delivering to specific planets and regions as requested by its customers. Its ships use advanced algorithms to decide their routes based on the number of messages, in system, they can detect at any given time. The flight paths of the ships have redundancy built into them so that the refitted X Boats can communicate with each other, learn which messages they are carrying, and use shortest path algorithms to save time. Trist Arrow rents services from existing Skyhooks and so the Imperium has been happy to have a second string company performing a parallel service.
Lately, however, Trist Arrow has been giving the old X Boat system a run for its money. Reinvesting its profits into its own jump points, Trist Arrow has been taking advantage of cheap labor on low tech worlds to serve as centralized repair bases. One new line of Trist Arrow ships is much larger than the old X Boat and is designed specifically for the return of malfunctioning technical products for companies which Trist Arrow has contracted out to repair for dissatisfied customers. Trist Arrow’s business is not so much communications but the logistics they learned in the mercenary business. In fact, in some systems, Trist Arrow is now used to move around local military operations. Other smaller ships have insured that Trist Arrow can now promise what the imperium never could, a three week guarantee on any message carried 6 parsecs, no matter the destination.
BIC’s response to Trist Arrow has been, over the past five decades, growing more hostile. It now considers the larval megacorporation a viable threat to its X Boat system, despite the introduction of NIC.
Count Gustavus Thaxis:
Marquis Helga Thaxis:
Marquis Jens Thaxis:
Countess Helga Thurn:
Marquis Roderick Thurn: