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“Old Reliables”

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller, and was revised and reprinted as a featured article in the August 2012 issue.

In a recent naval recruiting poster, KiKi Dish, the most popular Shugashi Metal scene singer in the Spinward Marches, and more recently well-received Holovid actress, wears a small jade amulet in the shape of a Rampart fighter on an iridium chain, an enticing smile and little else. There is no text. There does not need to be, for the totem KiKi wears is far more famous than she, and the fact that her eyes match the color of the little ship just highlights this powerful confluence of images that makes this wordless poster one of the most effective recruiting tool since the Imperial Navy has been counting. The poster’s real star is the playing piece for a game about two and a half centuries old, the limelight of which KiKi has been lucky to share.

Indeed, what game? In 857 the commander of the 1158th Imperial Heavy Fighter Squadron (“Old Reliables”), then-Lieutenant Commander Baron Alfred Thayer Mahan Ling, worked with the research and development group of Ling-Standard Products to develop a space flight simulator in a small gaming console that was eventually to make a colorful, wide mark on the habits of many starfarers across centuries. LCDR Ling’s idea became the “Old Reliables’ game”, quickly being dubbed the “ORbox.” The ORbox was a portable console, played by players who each use their own playing piece, or “ORbit.” He had a number of prototypes made for the 1158th, and required the 1158th’s flight crews to always have one with them whenever on pass, at the officers’ club, or off the base at a social engagement while in uniform. This requirement quickly passed from being treated as a noble’s bizarre eccentricity to a mark of pride for the Old Reliables.

The initial designs of the ORbox and ORbits were crude by current standards, with the original ORbits being not much more than a cut-down version of a standard data crystal, and the ORbox only being able to project the scene to standard wearable HUDs. This lack of polish and the limited initial manufacture are often cited as likely reasons that the spread beyond the “Old Reliables” was so slow.

While favored watering holes of the Old Reliables were lent a few ORboxes, they generated little outside interest until one pilot, whose identity is lost to history, managed to reshape his ORbit into a crude representation of his Rampart. That provoked some interest, and when word got back to the Baron and to LSP, a quick redesign of the ORbox and ORbits was pushed through, and the second manufacturing run released, much more polished, though still lacking any spectator projection capabilities. The increased attractiveness and word-of-mouth advertising as pilots transferred in and out of the 1158th led to the gradual spread of the “Old Reliables’ game” to other naval pilots (and their watering holes and hangouts). By 950, many naval veterans, and a few scout veterans, in civilian service carried ORbits. This glacial spread continued, though, into pilot ranks generally, spurred by Ling’s making ORboxes standard equipment in starship lounges, and a trend for veteran scouts to tout themselves as the “real pilots” during and after the Fourth Frontier War; the genesis of this latter trend is obscure. By 1025, there was not a pilot bar in any starport without an ORbox, and by 1050, there was not an A starport or Naval or Scout base without an automated kiosk for turning out ORbits. Still, most of these were bought by pilots and gunners; it was a rare crewmember who did not have a few that followed his career through the ships they represented. The real catalyst for the spread of the “Old Reliables’ game” was the release of the third-generation console—the first to incorporate the ability to project a spectator’s view of the game—by 1065. Over the next half century, the mystique of these electronic jousts, carried out by those whose skills were the stuff of glory and survival, steadily rose. While other games and entertainments bloomed and faded like wildflowers, the ORbox steadily gained market share among those in the Imperium who felt the pull of the stars but could not follow or return to them. The spread was probably hastened by Chandlers’ decision to start carrying them in 1075, spreading to all their stores by 1084, though some claim that the sea change came with the central role that ORduels played for the star of the blockbuster 1074 holovid drama Scout Quinn, the tragic hero played by Umu Meagher. That Umu was killed in an apparent pirate raid on his yacht a few months after the drama’s release magnified his mystique, and even spurred a somewhat tasteless marketing campaign by Chandlers of Regina to “buy one for Umu.” This crass ad campaign led to an acrimonious outcry and an ugly lawsuit by Meagher’s heirs; it also spurred record-breaking sales for ORboxes and ORbits throughout most of 1075 and 1076. The ORduel was by then well-known throughout the Marches, and the popularity of Scout Quinn continued to spread throughout the Imperium, by then bound up in the story of Meagher’s death, the Chandlers ORbox lawsuit, and the romance of the ORduel.

The present version of the ORbox is a squat, 20 cm square console, designed to be placed or mounted in the middle of a table. It monitors and interprets player hand movements that mimic actual manipulation of ships’ controls , and transmits images of each crew display to any standard HUD worn by a player, while a stylized version of the battle is projected holographically in the air about 1m above the ORbox for the benefit of spectators. It allows 2-4 players to play simultaneously, each placing an ORbit into a small cradle on their face of the ORbox. The ORbit’s manufacture records, in addition to the ship characteristics, the actual crew station setup of the ship in question. Crew stations can therefore be played as either pilot or gunner stations, and more than one crewmember can play the same ORbit. Tradition is that the pilot uses his own ORbit, but gunners typically carry one as well. Up to 4 ORboxes at a time can network to accommodate up to 16 players, but the spirit of head-to-head competition usually keeps contests small. This character of direct competition was probably the impetus leading such contests to be called “ORduels.” Usually, they are played on a “gentleman’s bet,” or for a drink. Less often, in commercial or mercenary circles, they may be played for money. The greatest challenge is a “bit-for-bit” challenge to an ORduel, with each pilot playing for the other’s ORbit. It would be an eccentric pilot indeed who headed to his favorite watering hole with an ORbox, because the ORbox has become a given fixture in any such establishment; it would, however, be quite normal for a pilot to sally forth with one or several of his ORbits. The bar usually has some to lend, of course, to cater to the neophyte who the serious types haven’t scared off, and while not universal, kiosks for purchasing one’s own ORbit are common.

The ORbox can and often does pit unequal ships against each other, but it scores the ORduels on the skill exhibited, rather than strictly on the ultimate outcome of the contest. Thus, a Patrol Cruiser facing a Sulieman would be expected to win the battle, but the Scout can prevail in the ORduel by taking longer to perish or by doing more damage than the odds would have predicted. Like many cultural practices, the ORduel can appear odd to the uninitiated: the participants of any ORduel resemble twitching idiots locked in some bizarre hallucinatory trance, but the bystanders typically focus on the holographic ballet occurring midair above the contestants, rather than the contestants themselves. Fighter pilots, free traders, big ship gunners, and scouts all come together in the dark back rooms of places with names like Decayed ORbit or Rampart’s Bane, filled with those who understand. There is not a concourse in any major starport without at least one automated kiosk, that can carve and program ORbits, in brass, titanium, jade, aluminum, quartz, iridium, crystaliron or sapphire. The ORbox has become wildly popular with hobbyists, fans, and “wannabes.” Many family members or sweethearts of spacefarers have souvenirs, in the form of ORbits, sent to them of the ships their loved ones have been posted to. In fact, the College of Social Sciences in Rhylanor University estimated that only 34% of ORbits are ever actually used; the rest are gifts and mementos. Further, of those 34% that are used, 95% of those are used by those with no rating. It is rare that the cargo space in any starship heading out from a world with a Naval or Scout base does not contain a few kilos of Orbits, sent to family and sweethearts back home, usually at greater cost to ship than to manufacture. By 1100, the ORbit had become a true, enduring cultural icon in the multicultural jumble which is interstellar society.