Friday, 27 April 2012

A to Z: X is for X-Boat

Previously, I have mentioned that in Traveller star travel is by Jump; each Jump is from 1 to 6 parsecs; and that each Jump takes one week during which the starship is isolated in its own little bubble of space/time. I have also discussed that one of the attractions of the Traveller Universe is the “age of sail” feel – there is no faster-than-light communication, messages move at the speed of the fastest ship heading in the approximate direction that the sendee wishes the message to go.

 The 3rd Imperium – the default Traveller campaign Universe – is big. It contains something like 11,000 inhabited systems. As an exercise, and to better demonstrate to a reader of this blog who was curious, I did some rough calculations on a large scale map of the Imperium and estimated that it would take approximately 80 weeks for a ship to travel from the Imperial Capital to the frontier Sector of the Spinward March. This represents a round trip of over two years for a message from Capital to reach the frontier and return – if that’s your mum you’re writing to, you’d better say a bit more than, “I am well. I hope you are well, too.”

Most of the Major Races in Traveller realised pretty early on that communication is what holds Empires together. The 3rd Imperium developed the X-Boat Network (X for Express) which, through a fleet of dedicated messenger Jump Boats and tenders, branches out and across all subsectors in Imperial Space. Most of the other major polities - the Hivers, the Zhodani,and the K'kree - have developed their own equivalent courier services. The Aslan, given the fragmented nature of their political structure (a confederation of clans) have messenger services within clan territories, but rely upon more haphazard arrangements for external communications.

The Imperial X-Boat is an odd little tear-drop shaped starship, as shown above at the top of the page, being little more than a J-4 drive, a fuel tank, a massive mail server, and a cramped crew area. The X-Boat can Jump up to four parsecs, but lacks a manoeuvre drive so is completely helpless when it enters Real Space. Tender ships patrol the outer Jump Zones of all systems on the X-Boat route. As soon as an X-Boat drops down into Real Space, it announces its arrival and attempts to lock onto the Tender. If the X-Boat has sufficient fuel for the next leg of its trip, the Tender stands off; otherwise, the Tender will pick up the X-Boat for servicing, crew rotation and fueling. As soon as Lock-on is achieved, the X-Boat’s Mail Server downloads its contents to the tender, which sorts the mail according to destination, archives it and up-loads it, as well as any local mail, to all outbound X-Boats, including the new arrival if it is heading onwards. In theory, if the X-Boat has sufficient fuel to make another Jump, the entire process from Drop Down, to server dump, to upload, to Jump takes as little as ten minutes, but usually under an hour.

X-Boats follow X-Boat routes. On the map of Lanth Subsector, as seen above, the X-Boat route is the green line snaking down from Dinoma in hex 0302, through Ghandi, the subsector capital Lanth, D'Ganzio, Ivendo, before splitting. One branch heads to Trailing via Equus into Rhylanor Subsector, while the other branch heads Rimward via Icetina into Mora Subsector. Each of the systems on this route has either an A or B Class Starport (the letters above the dot representing the world indicate the class of the main starport of the system) as A Class and B Class starports have both the best facilities, and the best infrastructure. A message downloaded in one of the systems on this route would then be transferred to a local merchant ship with a mail contract and then passed to the destination world as the mail ship completes its route.

The X-Boat system is claimed to be derived from the ancient Pony Express system as used on Earth in the Nineteenth Century, and on other planets at later dates, though why someone would use a business model 3,000 years old by the time of the 3rd Imperium has never been successfully explained. The emblem and shoulder patch of the X-Boat service is shown above - a messenger riding a poni - and, it is claimed, that this emblem can be traced back to the original mail service.


  1. Speed of communication and the time it takes for messages to be sent across interstellar distances are the determining factors on the size and/or organisation of interstellar empires.

    A war on the borders could be over before news of it reaches the centre, let alone before the centre can react by sending reinforcements.

    The Pony Express symbology is somewhat odd when you consider that the X-boat network is Vilani - it wouldn't seem so bizarre for the Solomani equivalent. However, I would imagine that similar pre-Jump systems would have existed on the Vilani homeworld, so maybe it isn't so odd after all.

    With regards to why use a model that was so old, the Pony Express (and equivalents in other countries) worked well in its context - very long distances between hubs/nodes, the need for rapid delivery and the non-existence of faster modes of communication. The appearance of the telegraph and then the telephone reduced and then eliminated the Pony Express as the preferred method of rapid communications. If FTL communication ever became possible, it would have the same effect on the X-Boat service.

    1. Well stated. In the Traveller Universe, the 4th Frontier War with the Zhodani only lasted two years and so was over before the Emperor could react. Defensive war fighting seems to be done at the Sector Level, as the reaction time is then reduced to weeks, with neighbouring Sectors releasing fleet elements as requested - very much in the mould of the Roman Empire.

      I wasn't aware that the X-Boat service was adopted from the Vilani - I assumed each of the Vilani Bureaux would have a messenger service but that the 2nd Imperium created the X-Boat service we know. Possibly explains the riding beats in the patch above.

      I seem to recall that the Pony Express only ran for something like two years before the telegraph and, more importantly, the railroads replaced it. I agree, if the Imperium ever develops something like the Ansible, then the X-Boat system's days are numbered.

    2. That was just my assumption - the X-Boat service is run by the Imperial Scout service, and the Imperium is Vilani in origins, so the symbolism is likely to be taken from the Vilani homeworld. However, my memory of the history of the Imperium could well be wrong and I'd be happy to stand corrected.

  2. I think we've all taken a X-boat extension contract at some time, and tried to break the encryption to read the messages in transit!