Options for the X-Boat Network
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.
Although commonly described as a ‘Pony Express’ type system, with messages transported virtually non-stop by one-person Express Boats, the X-Boat Network actually employs a number of different formats throughout the Imperium. These formats (known as ‘message protocols’ in Scout parlance) are implemented on a case-by-case basis by the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service (IISS) based on criteria such as cost, regional significance, projected urgency of messages, and X-Boat availability in the applicable sub-sector or grouping of sub-sectors. In addition to the “Pony Express” model or Rush Protocol, the IISS typically uses the Scheduled Protocol, the Flash Protocol, the Package Protocol, the Independent Protocol, and the Isolation Protocol. Each of these is described below, along with a summary of the advantages and disadvantages for each, and some discussion of the types of situation in which each might be used. First, however, a discussion of generally applicable X-Boat procedures is necessary.
X-Boat Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
X-Boat SOPs are applicable to most of the message protocols employed by the Scout Service. Sequentially, the X-Boat network SOP is:
- Inbound X-boat arrives in-system.
- Inbound X-boat transmits messages to a “Message Center” (which may be aboard an X-Boat tender, on a remote station, or located at the system’s primary starport).
- Message Center accepts the newly transmitted messages from the inbound X-boat, and combines those messages with other messages already in the outbound queue. If necessary, the messages are sorted by destination, and placed in outbound message queues for the next X-Boat that will get them closer to their final destination.
- Message Center transmits outbound message packet either direct to an outbound X-boat or to an X-boat tender servicing X-boats in the system.
- If necessary, the X-boat tender re-transmits outbound message packet to the outbound X-boat, either through radio, laser, or physical connection depending on the X-boat’s location and status.
- Outbound X-boat receives message packet.
- Outbound X-boat commences Jump per appropriate message protocol.
While the sequence of activities in this SOP remains constant regardless of the message protocol in use, the timing of each action will vary.
X-Boat Message Protocols
The message protocols applicable for a given system will determine the specific timing of X-Boat procedures. The most common message protocols are:
Rush Protocol (also known as the ‘Pony Express Protocol’): Inbound X-Boat message is transmitted direct to outgoing X-Boat (possibly through a relay by message center or tender) and the outgoing X-Boat Jumps as soon as the message is complete.
Advantages: Minimal delay of the message in system if an X-Boat is available.
Disadvantages: If used as the standard protocol in a region, there is no guarantee an X-Boat will be available for onward movement; requires large number of X-Boats (and supporting tenders) to ensure constant flow of two-way message traffic.
Primary Use: Rush Protocol is most effective in areas of high X-Boat density, large numbers of available tenders, and a large volume of messages travelling both ways on the X-Boat Network. The Rush Protocol may also be used as the standard message protocol in areas of particularly critical fleet or Imperial government information that will need immediate passage up and down the chain of command if Naval fleet couriers are not available. A Rush Protocol may be assigned to a particular message by the sender (usually at a premium), perhaps as the result of a war declaration (or surrender), first contact, discovery of high tech level artifacts, assassinations, or other significant information.
Scheduled Protocol: Messages are delivered via regularly scheduled X-Boats conducting Jumps to specific destinations.
Advantages: Allows synchronization of reports and message distribution with X-Boat schedule; maximizes X-Boat efficiency with regards to amount of data carried per Jump.
Disadvantages: Messages may be delayed depending on frequency of scheduled X-Boat Jumps.
Primary Use: Scheduled Protocol is used in areas where there is a relatively low density of available X-Boats, such as frontier sub-sectors. Alternately, Scheduled Protocol will also be used in areas where constant reports are to be expected, such as a war zone or a system undergoing colonization. In those instances, regularly spaced reports provide sufficient information for administrative and logistical follow-up and support. (Critical operational messages and order will travel via Naval fleet courier).
Flash Protocol: Inbound X-Boat physically transfers its message data drive direct to an outgoing X-Boat. The transfer occurs as soon as the inbound X-Boat arrives and the outbound X-Boat Jumps as soon as the transfer is complete. The message data drive is approximately the size of a (contemporary) laptop computer. The outgoing X-Boat will carry multiple message data drives to destination (its own and those received from inbound X-Boat signaling Flash protocol messages). The message data drives are mounted in receptacles in the X-Boat’s message computer. Upon arrival at a new system, the messages from both data drives are transmitted to the Message Center separately, and sorted as necessary by the Message Center. The message data drive continues to transfer to an outgoing X-boat until it reaches a designated destination where it will be delivered to a specified recipient.
Advantages: Preserves the integrity of the original data drive as no new data will be added in transit.
Disadvantages: Transition time in-system increased relative to an electronic-only transfer of data; extra-vehicular activities are required to move the message data drive between X-Boats.
Primary Use: The Flash Protocol is used when there is an identified need to avoid risking the contamination of the message data drive with new information—in other words, the information from the data drive is transmitted, but no new information is ever loaded onto the data drive. Flash Protocol will also be used to avoid possible data loss or scrambling as a result of multiple transmissions and retransmissions. The final recipient receives the message data drive with the information intact as it was originally loaded at the origin Message Center.
Package Protocol (also known as Courier Protocol if the ‘package’ is a person requiring transport): Inbound x-boat transfers a physical package for further movement (may be combined with other protocols).
Advantages: Allows the speedy movement of small, critical items such as original documents, heirlooms, symbols of sovereignty, even individuals!
Disadvantages: Transition time in-system is increased, extra-vehicular activity required to transfer the item from X-Boat to X-Boat.
Primary Use: The Package Protocol is used when some physical object must reach a specified destination as quickly as possible. This protocol is also used when a messenger is carrying critical information that is so sensitive that it cannot be entrusted to digital or even written form, but is instead intended for oral transmission at the recipient’s location.
Independent Protocol: This is an X-Boat management protocol that can be combined with any of the other in-system message handling protocols. With the Independent Protocol, X-Boats are not associated with a specific X-Boat tender. While usually an X-Boat Jumps from one system to another, and then back to the original system, with the Independent Protocol the X-Boat will be dispatched to whatever destination is required as soon as the X-Boat is available. Using this protocol, the X-Boat and X-Boat pilot are normally kept together.
Advantages: There is increased flexibility for the deployment and movement of X-Boat tenders, which no longer have to coordinate Jumps with integral X-Boats. In addition, increased familiarity of the pilot with a specific X-Boat can potentially improve preventative maintenance practices and troubleshooting.
Disadvantages: There is increased difficulty in predicting the demand for X-Boat spare parts and consumables at each X-Boat tender because X-Boats will arrive at various points in their maintenance cycle. In addition, the X-Boat pilot faces long periods of time away from any ‘home’ system, requiring a certain mindset in order to avoid low morale.
Primary Use: This protocol is used in regions where the X-Boat network has a high number of contract pilots using surplus X-Boats on semi-detached duty (similar to Retired Scouts operating S-Type Scout Ships). It is also used where the available X-Boat tender hangar space is limited but the volume of message traffic is high.
Isolation Protocol: With the Isolation Protocol, a single X-boat carries a message for the entire trip with immediate refueling and re-provisioning en route. Pilots may or may not switch out depending on Service instructions.
Advantages: Minimizes risk of scrambling or garbling the message through re-transmission, as well as minimizing the risk of the message being intercepted while being retransmitted.
Disadvantages: Complete loss of the message is possible, if the X-Boat itself is lost through a mis-jump or accident. Places high stress on the X-Boat and pilot since maintenance and downtime may be delayed pending completion of the journey.
Primary Use: Most frequent use of this protocol is to transport special envoys and couriers who become, in effect, the ‘message’ in transit. This is similar to the Package/Courier Protocol except the message or item is so important that even the movement between X-Boats cannot be risked. This protocol will be used in sub-sectors with large numbers of tenders or tender-like support, but low numbers of X-Boats. This protocol is also used in systems that serve only as refueling and provisioning stops for the X-Boat—typically uninhabited systems that generate few messages of their own.
Making and Breaking the Protocols.
The Scout Service establishes the standard Message Protocol for use in a sub-sector; typically, a regional X-Boat network manager (a civilian Scout Service employee, often a retired Scout or naval officer) responsible for these sorts of decisions is located at a Class A or B starport on the X-Boat route within the subsector. In any given system, a local manager (again, typically a Scout Service civilian) is charged with implementing the protocols and procedures laid out by the regional manager.
X-Boats deviate from the default protocol under two conditions. In the first condition, the origin Message Center, based on instructions from local managers, identifies the outgoing message packet as requiring a protocol different from the default protocol in use in the sector. This determination is often made in conjunction with local political officials or at the behest of the nobility. In that case, the X-Boat carrying the message packet transmits a special code when it arrives at its destination system. The code may indicate the requirement for a Flash Protocol, Rush Protocol, or other. The receiving Message Center and the supporting X-Boat tender at the destination system respond to the special code by taking whatever actions are necessary to fulfill the required protocol. For example, if an arriving X-Boat is transmitting the code for the Rush Protocol, then the servicing X-Boat tender will immediately prepare a second X-Boat to receive the message and Jump as soon as it is ready. This only works, of course, if there are X-Boats that can quickly be made ready to Jump.
In the second condition, deviation from the standard message protocol occurs when the potential recipient of an expected message informs all Message Centers ‘upstream’ (i.e. between the recipient and the expected source of the message) that messages from the source must be handled with a specific protocol—typically the Rush Protocol. This may require the allocation of additional assets (X-Boats and tenders) to ensure an X-Boat is available for any potential message. Again, this is usually done in response to local political requirements as determined by planetary, system, and subsector-level Imperial bureaucracy or by the nobility.
In some circumstances, Scout Service administrators need to adjudicate the priorities between messages indicating different protocols. In those instances, the priorities, lowest to highest, are (1) Scheduled; (2) Rush; (3) Flash or Package/Courier; (4) Isolation or Independent
For example, if a region defaults to Rush protocol rather than Scheduled protocol, a message with Scheduled priority headers would be handled as Rush, the local default, but a message with Flash priority would override the Rush protocol and be handled as Flash. In the event that other messages of lower priorities are waiting for service to the same destination, they will be prepared for immediate transmission and will “piggyback” on the higher-priority message.
Package, Courier, and Independent can be seen as modifiers to other protocols and in general would be used only for high-priority messages (or items) operating in accord with the similarly-handled protocol.
Adventures involving the X-Boat network can use the idea that politicians, businesspeople, criminals, or other unsavory types might want to intercept and either manipulate or delay the information being transmitted.
Who’s Tampering With The Mail? An X-Boat manager of the PCs’ acquaintance has circumstantial evidence that X-Boat messages are being intercepted by persons unknown—but this is supposed to be a physical impossibility because of the tightbeam and meson communicators used by the system. The PCs’ friend suspects an inside job, and hires the PCs to go undercover to identify the infiltrator, who may be (1) an X-Boat pilot with expensive tastes who is copying sensitive business information from other systems and transferring it to a corrupt executive for a subsector-wide corporation; (2) a bored Message Center operator with fast fingers, high Computer skill, and a taste for gambling who owes a bundle to a planetside bookie, paying off his debt by delaying messages about outsystem sporting events to everyone but the bookie so she can place last-minute bets that offset her payouts; or (3) the captain of an X-Boat tender with family ties to a rebellious noble house in a nearby system who is using his influence to insert rebel propaganda in messages destined for the system.
Can You Tamper With The Mail For Me? The PCs are approached by a smarmy-seeming nobleman who is willing to pay them to infiltrate the X-Boat network somehow and insert a fake message into the message packet for a nearby high population world before a scheduled message from “upstream” arrives. The fake message misrepresents agricultural or resource extraction production information so that the nobleman can get an advantage in an interstellar commodities market on the destination world.
The Mail Must Not Go Through! The PCs are hired to intercept a package being transported on the X-Boat network. IISS officials have implemented the use of the Package Protocol for the shipment. The patron is aware of the origin and destination system, and the general timeline for when the package will depart the origin. The PCs are either located at a system on the X-Boat network route, or have a limited amount of time to get into position to intercept the package. The package consists of 1) an alien artifact discovered at an Imperial archeological site; 2) powerful anagathics destined for influential and wealthy users; 3) experimental pharmaceuticals intended as a vaccine, destined for a planet suffering from a horrific plague; 4) a sports trophy for an annual multi-system competition, now en-route from last year’s winner to the site of this year’s finale.
The Mail Must Go Through! The PCs have been contracted the complete the final, one-Jump leg of a lengthy message trail. The PCs either have their own ship or are part of a crew conducting this mission. At the link-up point with the X-Boat, the X-Boat is uncommunicative. The pilot, having operated under the Isolation Protocol (without substitution) fails to transmit the message for final delivery. The pilot is 1) physically ill as a result of defective food supplements in the last legs of the journey; 2) mentally ill due to long periods alone and now seeks only to protect the message and his boat; 3) deceased—with the X-Boat now controlled by an increasingly aware automatic pilot that will defend the X-Boat from intruders using attitude control thrusters, control of lighting, vents, hatches and airlocks, and electronic jamming or deception while awaiting recovery from a legitimate X-Boat tender. Per normal procedures, the X-Boat tender can take up to three days to reach the X-Boat. The PCs are expected at the final destination within one week (give or take the normal margin of error in a jump), and will face financial penalties for each day of delay.
What’s The Mail Doing Here? As a variation of the previous scenario, the PCs could encounter a derelict X-Boat in a system off the X-Boat network in similar circumstances. In this case, the X-Boat suffered a Jump malfunction due to insufficient maintenance. The pilot is likely dead and the ship is now controlled by the automatic pilot.
When It Absolutely Positively Has To Get There (For one or two PCs; recommended attributes include Pilot, and either Noble or Merchant backgrounds.) A local noble has an urgent need to get to the sub-sector capital within 30 days. The sub-sector capital is three legs away via the X-Boat network (requiring two link-ups with X-Boat tenders), but five legs away via standard passenger liners. The noble has come to doubt the loyalties of his proxy on the sub-sector council, and has learned that the proxy will vote inappropriately on an upcoming council decision affecting Imperial subsidies for the noble’s planet. Knowing the PC pilot to be reliable, he will arrange the loan of an X-Boat for the journey, piloted by the PC. Alternately, the noble will entrust a second PC (preferably a related noble or merchant associate) to travel to the sub-sector capital and replace the proxy for the vote. A condition of the loan is that the X-Boat carry out normal messenger duties—which are highly automated but do require monitoring. The mission will involve any or all of 1) successful piloting, navigation, transition and messenger functions en route; 2) attempted interception of the noble while in transit by opposing political forces; 3) confrontation with the proxy and his new cohorts; 4) the actual vote on the subsidies—which may require a persuasive argument in order to sway the rest of the council towards the noble’s point of view.
Target: The Post Office The PCs are recruited by a nascent pirate organization seeking to takeover an X-Boat tender in the current or a nearby system. The pirates seek individuals with Scout Service experience, skills in physical ship deception and electronic spoofing, plus combat skills for boarding actions. The general plan is to approach the tender in an S-type Scout, X-Boat, or disguised system boat that has been modified to hold a boarding team. Alternately, the PCs may be approached by Imperial Intelligence operatives and recruited to infiltrate the pirate group planning an operation of this kind.