In the beginning was the network.
Ask a random Vector where the seeds of their culture came from. Most will point to the Marsco logo. True as far as it goes, Marsco and its sister corps shape Vector society, even created the race. Some might go further back, to the Terran corporations that built the first corptowns, that created utopias free from government meddling. But those fabled corporate rebel cities couldn’t have been built without a community with a global vision, far above political borders. Vectors were born from a test tube, but their culture evolved from the anarchy and freedom of Terra’s global communication network.
Of course, that was something like 800 years ago. Today, a sparkling grid of information connects worlds. A husband gazes into a window, his mate on a merchant ship between planets. He isn’t looking toward the horizon for her return; instead, text and images spread out from the toggle he presses to the window’s surface. Pulse and ASR’s epic contests of machine vs. macro play out on smart surfaces across the system. MarsCo celebrities sparkle in luminescent, shifting patterns, with the latest fashion and the latest modifications, and within hours, Vectors on two worlds and a few moons have rushed out to their choice buyspot to sparkle along with them. Living creatures move across the void of space in hours, transmitted in the form of data. Information, flowing at the speed of light, connects Vectors.
And yet, talking of the distance between planets, even the speed of light seems agonizingly slow…
Connecting the Stars
The Lightstream minicorp and the Interplanetary Network
A new Minicorp and optional rules for network communication for HSD
© 2016 by Ashtaar and Corbeau
“Communication at the speed of life.”
The early days of interplanetary communication were cumbersome, for lack of a better world. A communication grid was an indispensable part of every new corptown, and the earliest records of post-terraform Mars were images of the families of scientists posing on the newly printed buildings, still shining (and even steaming) from the Geomat, sent to their jealous friends back home. Consumption and communication go hand in hand, and the corps like happy customers! But getting a message reliably between planets? That was harder. The vast tides of data Vector society create every second created huge backlogs through the narrow secure data streams between Mars, Venus, and the other colonies, and the back-and-forth validation processes proofing and tracking discrete bundles of data move agonizingly slowly when light itself takes almost an hour to move from Venus to Europa. Add to that the data security issues of TTI and Spyglass, cosmic rays, anomalous signals, eclipses…the information dark ages were a mess. And expensive. The microtransactions from countless communications, intentional or otherwise, were some of the great financial burdens that spawned the modern Ledger system.
Thankfully, at least the uncertainty and expense are in the past. Thanks to a rare alliance of three megacorps, a strong set of standards, a schedule, and clear lines have been built to allow the Vector information culture to sustain itself across something like 14 million kilometers: that alliance is Lightstream.
The Lightstream network was conceptualized by ASR some 500 years ago, first built on a coordinate mapping system of space stations and communication satellites. That grid is still in place, a distributed network flinging encoded data across the asteroid belt. Inefficient, but functional. ASR, always keen on acronyms, called this the Mercury Information Transmission/Hosting and Interplanetary Communications network, MITHIC (named after the messenger god, not so much the planet.) The MITHIC network was a huge success, still in use today, and many of the oldest space stations operate solely on Lightstream’s hub payments. But it wasn’t secure.
Unwilling to let one single megacorp build a monopoly on transplanet communication, Spyglass generously gave its Hotline technology to the MITHIC team. Spyglass and ASR built four massive Bluesky station hubs at the prime Jupiter-Sun Lagrange points, affectionately called ChanneL 1 (in Jupiter’s orbit facing the sun), ChanneL 2 (on the far side of Jupiter’s orbit), and ChanneLs 3 and 4, in the Greek and Trojan asteroids. Powerful databeams link these four space stations. While these transmissions have little or no secure information on them, they contain routing and decrypting information for the MITHIC information streams. (At least that’s the theory. No-one would trust Spyglass with that much information access. But their priority communications and Graynet do seem to move much faster than IRPF’s messages…)
Of course, maintaining four massive hubs and hundreds of relays was expensive, and the enterprise seemed doomed to financial ruin, too big a ledger drain for most Vectors to use. MITHIC’s salvation and a sexy rebranding came from the company that seemed least likely to make a major investment in IT infrastructure.
There was a certain breathless excitement surrounding the Proving Grounds games on Ganymede 230 years ago. It was 500 years after the creation of the vector race. On this unique occasion, the full power and grace of the Vector species and the dazzling technology of ASR would be on full display, muscle and cable locked in glorious battle–ahem, competition. Sport. The spectacle would be amazing. The lighting effects, moreso. But how to broadcast it affordably? And how to let every viewer hang on the moments as a species? And how to sell commemorative holos and jerseys across the Sol system at the same time? The day of the show, the dusty old MITHIC network would be revamped, revitalized, rebranded—and, amazingly, free. The results were phenomenal. A sense of the unity and power of the Vector species swept across the system. The advertising revenues were phenomenal. Lightstream had come, and it was awesome. Except for the damned pop-ups.
Since that one perfect moment, Lightstream has faced any number of technical challenges, but has never crashed. Occasionally one of the Lagrange hubs will falter and slow everything down (ChanneL 1 is particularly volatile), but even when Lightstream’s Hotline backbone goes down, the old MITHIC circulatory system is strong, if sluggish. The data will go through. Eventually.
ASR for the most part handles the technical side of things, and their employees are the bulk of Lightstream agents. Pulse keeps their hands off the mess, content to let the white-coated data monkeys handle the messy connectivity work, as long as their programming gets the lion’s share of the bandwidth, and every corp benefits from that: an entertained populus is a peaceful populus. Weirdly, Spyglass plays police and peacemaker between these two rival companies. It’s a strange arrangement, but it works.
None? IRFP is suspicious of the Graynet, but takes the good with the bad. It knows Spyglass is hiding a small criminal empire in Lightstream, but taking down the network isn’t an option. Of all the other corporations, only TTI has floated an alternative, using quantum entanglement as the check digit instead of the Hotline system, but the system never quite works under scrutiny.
– Spyglass reads your browser history. This isn’t so much a rumor as accepted fact, but unless you’re a very high-ranking Corp member, they don’t seem to care. The vast majority of Vectors aren’t interesting enough to be worth blackmailing.
– Signals from Earth are a huge contributor to the sluggish performance of Lightstream’s network. Old entertainment shows from Terra rebroadcast themselves spontaneously. You can recognize them because they’ve only got four minutes of advertising.
– Something in the data is moving. No, seriously. There’s some sort of growing sentience, a ghost in the network. Maybe it’s a single master AI, one mind developing in the silent sea of information. Or maybe it’s not a new creature at all, but something 700 years old, that remembers the destruction of one empire, long, long ago…
Key Products and Services
Secure uplinks, macroband connections, popup advertisements, tiny but pervasive licensing fees, subscriptions, virtual space and virtual spaces
A bit friendlier than ASR, and not as flashy as Pulse. Actual Lightstream employees run in the thousands, not tens of millions, and they know where their bread is buttered. Pulse’s massive and largely unregulated slush fund has created a strange subculture of fixers with deep pockets, an elite repair and support team spanning a solar system, with elite access to the most powerful communication network in history, and they know it, but showing too much flash or buckling too many data swashes might draw an audit. The couragous technicians of Lightstream walk a fine line, and know to be very careful when Pulse offers them a reality show gig. Lightstream is one of the few environments outside of ASR prime where a rare Cogsune might show its head, if there’s one that wants to escape the labs for a few months, and there’s rumors that two of these creations sit on the Lightstream board of directors (or at least have a nameplate on the table, they don’t show up often.)
Lightstream is an employer, not a civilization unto itself. Its representatives usually have names drawn from ASR, Pulse, Marsco, and Spyglass, though unpronounceable elements tend to get discarded over time, and even Pulse talent drops the flashing green text and icons after a year of dealing with MITHIC’s 400-year-old interface.
Streaming at the Speed of Life: Mechanics
Like the 21st century internet and Vector ledgers, communication using the transplanet network should be simple, transparent, and move at the speed of plot. A message gets there when it gets there, and it will get there. Nobody cares about your cat pictures, even if a hacker picks up your messages it’s unlikely they’ll do anything with them—unless you sent someone an access string for a Ledger transaction, or you happen to be a Pulse celebrity athlete or a well-placed Marsco executive.
Planetside, the internet functions quite well, thank you, even if it’s a hodge-podge of Corptown standards. Everyone likes profit, and communication drives that profit. Feel free to adapt any of these optional rules for planetside use, but they’re primarily designed for routing information between moons and worlds.
Offworld data transmission suffers from four major factors:
— A limited number of upload points, usually owned by megacorps
— An amazing glut of data from billions of users sending selfies, corps sending TPS reports, and wealthy and brave people sending themselves
— A system that prioritizes corporate business over personal messages
— Physics. Light takes 6-20 minutes to move from Venus to Mars, and 30-60 from Mars to Jupiter. Add to that the back-and-forth nature of packet-style communication, and that’s a lot of lag.
The main bottleneck, and a useful place for game action to happen, is at the Megacorp uplinks, which route information to the Lightstream system. If something’s going to go wrong, it’ll go wrong there (unless the PCs are trying to blow up ChanneL 1 or a space station relay…) Here, the servers prioritize and encrypt information before beaming it into space, and it’s actually possible to move faster than the speed of email—particularly during a big Pulse game.
It’s safe to assume a secure executive corp transmission can get across Sol in a day or two, or perhaps 4-6 hours if the Powers that Be get involved. Most low-priority free transmissions will get there in a week, wherever “there” is, and priority paid services have 3-4 days lag time. The so-called “Digital Transmission” service, which transmits a living creature between planets, is a very high-priority signal, partly because anybody that can afford the hefty 1000-credit tag is a client worth preserving, and follows its own rules (p. 233). Digital transmission is a cause of the lag, not generally a victim of it!
But sometimes, in the interest of suspense or player character effort, you have to roll some dice.
These two approaches—low rules crunch and high rules crunch—are there if the narrative calls for them. Each focuses on speed, security, and reliability, and you should only worry about the important aspects of the roll.
1) Crunch-Light: Easy Rolls
If you just want to add a bit of randomness to a scenario, you can work with the following assumptions:
Speed: Any transplanet information will reach its destination in 2d8 days if it’s sent using free, informal methods. Using any corp’s premium service will lower that to 1d8 days, or 1d6 days on a “Premium Plus” plan or if the players have some sort of direct link or are using one of the rare Lightstream-owned uplink points.
Inside a Corptown, most transplanet communications will be routed through a primary hub somewhere in the city. A high-priority transmission might wait an hour before being sent to Lightstream, and a low-priority one might languish as much as a day (2d12 hours). During that time, it’s possible that the right application of funds, threats, or explosives could interrupt a transmission, but once it’s sent to Lightstream, it’s out of PC hands.
Security: It’s safe to assume that any unencrypted message has been compromised, and the important question is “does anybody care?”
If an unencrypted message has important ledger information, sensitive photos, the sender is a celebrity or has high Allegiance (4+), or there’s a plot-centric reason that local info-sifters would be on the alert, assume there’s a 1 in 4 chance a message has been popped open by a hacker or ‘bot and looked over closely. If the PCs are in the plot spotlight, don’t bother rolling, your competition thanks you for your generous gift. Standard, out-of-the-box encryption might take this to a 1 in 10 roll.
If a message is actively encrypted by a careful user, roll Mind:Dexterity+Computers vs. a flat difficulty or contested a Mind:Strength+Computers roll on the part of the hacking group…but that’s outside the realm of “roll-and-shout” scenarios.
Reliability: It’s going to get there, really. But if you just have to roll, throw 2D8. If there’s a 1, add an additional 1d8 days to the message’s arrival. If there’s two 1s, the message never makes it—blame spam filters, hackers, or cosmic rays.
2) Crunch-heavy: Adding Optional Complexity
Again, don’t bog down a transparent process with mechanics unless there’s a good reason! But here’s some suggestions for more textured rules, if you find them useful or they add drama.
Make a roll for whatever aspect of the transmission seems important: speed, security, reliability (the last one only under unusual game circumstances, a critical failure on the other roll can represent a transmission failure.) The roll’s going to look like a standard skill type roll, but:
Number of dice: These are based on the priority of the transmission, from 1-4: 1 die for free messaging systems, the Utilit-I network, coffee-shop notes. 2 dice for paid premium services (cost: 5 credits, 3 for employees). 3 dice for priority transmissions (Corp executive messages delivered on company lines, any Lightstream employee’s messages, messages sent directly from a Megacorp uplink, “platinum” data services (beginning at 15 credits/8 for employees, and going up from there for large transmissions). 4 dice: Transmitting directly from the critical hub at the Ceres station, “the shadowy hand of a Megacorp board member keys in a personal priority code…”
Assume that any dice are d10, for simplicity.
Effort Modifiers: A modifier of +0 to +4 can be added to the roll based on how much effort the PCs have made, GM’s discretion, but any real preparation in terms of bribes, technical finesse, research, or arm-twisting should receive a bonus of at least +2.
Then roll it!
Speed: Assume a base lag of 10 days to transmit off-planet. Each success on the die roll shaves 1d8 days off the total. If you really want to fine-tune this, if a die roll takes the transmission time to one day, roll any remaining d8s together, double the result, and subtract the result from 24 for for the transmission time in hours.
Security: It may make more sense to let the party’s resident techie roll Mind:Strength+Computers here instead, just to keep the rules clear and simple and reward the contents of a character sheet.
But if the PCs are buying their security, a successful roll here can simply indicate that the message is secure, end of story. Alternatively, this roll can be one side of an opposed check roll, if a PC hacker is really trying to break through into a secure transmission.
Reliability: In general, only roll for reliability under extreme circumstances: sunspot flares, cosmic ray storm, an attack has taken out huge chunks of the MITHIC network or Hotline relays. Consider hiding this roll from the players! If the above roll is successful, the message goes through without issue. If it fails, the transmission is garbled or damaged, and its recipient may need to do some work on their end or hire an assistant to decipher the remaining mess. On a critical failure, the message is deleted, but it may take weeks for the recipient to realize there’s a problem…
“You’re Not Using AT&T.”
Not all Megacorp uplinks are created equal, and your service provider may change the result above…
Marsco and Progenitus: The biggest service provider is also the most overloaded. Add an extra 1d8 days to any failed “Speed” roll.
ASR and Lightstream: You pay for quality. Any ASR premium service cost is increased by +50%, but either of these companies adds +1 dice to the optional check above for their paid services. Lightstream uplinks don’t cost more, they’re just better! But Lightstream uplinks are rare as Lightstream doesn’t compete directly with the megacorps, usually only available in multi-corp communities and non-corporation outposts.
Pulse: Pulse offers a “Fremium” service that offers speed and security, with a lot of advertising. A customer can get the benefits of premium service (+2 dice and whatever other gravy the game master adds). However, if the optional check fails, the transmission vanishes, eaten by a spam filter.
IRPF: IRPF has no corptowns and no publically available uplinks. However, their larger offices may have a secure uplink for employees. The reduced traffic and increased oversight gives IRPF uplinks a solid +2 modifier to the optional check.
Spyglass: Spyglass uplinks tend to be unsecure unless you’ve paid extra for premium service (Difficulty 9 on any security optional checks). However, if you know the right people (high Spyglass influence or a good Community roll) you may be able to access the company’s Graynet, reducing transmission time to a flat 1d6 days as it routes signals along the master Hotlink relays.
TTI: TTI has the only strong alternative to the Hotlink relay system: their uplinks use quantum entanglement to transmit tracking and decryption information. Add +1 Dice to all rolls (speed, reliability, security), but on a failure, the data goes…away…and on a critical failure, it may draw the attention of an outside force.
HSD has a lot of intentional or unintentional unanswered questions. But one of the big ones is “how does a consumer technology communicate?” It’s hard to imagine a culture dominated by Big Business NOT having a Christmas giving season. Retail outlets everywhere would demand it. But the tools for creating an interplanetary network for big media pushes don’t seem to be there, and the cryptic comments about the “Sol Network” just left more questions than answers. Of course, there don’t NEED to be answers to technical questions, but if they create fun opportunities for role-play, like a team of swashbuckling cable repair weasels fighting off hordes of drones to prevent a pirate radio station from taking over the Callisto Subreciever, I’m all for that. – Corbeau
A quick list of HSD’s existing references to communication technology:
HSD Primary Rulebook:
Databeams (51) – point-to-point communication between ships and the ground, and a reasonably secure connection to the internet (with “internet” mentioned by name.)
Crash Suites (136) – every hacker’s favorite infiltration tool.
Hotline Unit (139) – Spyglasses short-range answer to data security.
Magic Ear (140) – an all-purpose digital listening device for phone and radio
Toggle Case (145) – the modern equivalent of a smartphone.
UI lenses (145) – digital lenses to interact with the setting’s augmented reality.
Neural Connectivity Suite (216) – an invasive implant that lets the owner communicate “telepathically” with computers.
Wireless Hub (217) – an implant that lets its owner reroute and rebroadcast digital information.
Utilit-i (217) – the Augmented Reality implant and a mention of the very hackable UI network.
Digital Transmission (233) – “Teleportation” by transmitting your personal data to a new location.
Hacking (234…) – rules for hacking, including inserting live data into a stream (235)
Uncharted Lanes (263) – travelling off the standard shipping lanes, with the suggestion that an interplanetary internet exists and is available in these clearly-defined regions.
“The Sol Network” (61) – briefly mentioned (with capital letters) as a solar system-wide network
Cogsune Quantum Backup Network (81) – The Cogsune secret resurrection network and how TTI’s “Cuil” mechanics interfere with it.
Emergency Channel (109) – a Communications Focus ability. Its user can tap into local public broadcasting channels and dump content onto the primary local emergency broadcast.
Hivers (138) – a hive mind created through a shared wireless gestalt state and the neural connectivity suite.
Remote Vision (146) – A more detailed discussion of the Utilit-I network, expanding the range to three miles, allowing hacking, possibly control, and discussing levels of security.
Network Surveillance (170) – in color text, a brief reference to network security and how hard it is to get off the grid.