Amongst Boundless Stars
Without space travel Mankind would have died millennia ago in the poisoned desolation of ancient Terra’s sterile deserts. In the 41st millennium, interstellar spaceships form a frail lifeline enabling humanity to survive amongst the stars. The defence of the Imperium, trade, communication, and transportation are each dependent upon interstellar travel and ultimately upon interstellar spaceships.
Interstellar spaceships are equipped with warp drives enabling them to travel between the stars. A few of these craft are owned by Imperial Commanders, Navigator families, or other independent organisations or individuals. The vast majority belong to the Administratum, the administrative branch of the Adeptus Terra. All legally operating human ships, whether owned by the Imperium or not, are registered and policed by the Administratum.
Crossing the Void
The whole structure of the Imperium is founded upon the craft that transport its armies and officials across the galaxy. The fleets are responsible for carrying vital food to the starving hive worlds and bringing technology and equipment to the agricultural planets. Without its fleets the Imperium would soon collapse and humanity would perish in many parts of the galaxy.
Interstellar craft may be privately owned, but most operate on behalf of one of the Imperial organisations. Of these, the Imperial Navy is the largest, numbering tens of thousands of uncounted warships and cargo vessels of varying sizes. In addition to its spacecraft the navy maintains military spaceports, space stations, mining and factory ships, various orbital research stations, and countless unmanned orbitals serving as early warning, exploration, and research satellites.
So vast is the Imperium that the Navy is divided into five main segmentums, and each functions as an independent administrative unit (although they cooperate by necessity). Most of the higher levels of Imperial Navy command would come directly from the ranks of the priesthood — principally from the Administratum. The overall fleet commander may also be a High Lord and resident on Terra.
The Adeptus Terra not only has ultimate control of the fleet, but also maintains a number of its own ships. These reside permanently on Terra, whilst many more are scattered throughout the galaxy at any one time, transporting Imperial servants on missions of the greatest importance or secrecy. A further corps of ships lies under the direct control of the Adeptus Arbites, to be used for transportation and war.
The Space Marines have their own interstellar transports and battlefleets. Although not large in numbers, these vessels are manned by the most ferocious and highly trained warriors in the galaxy. Each Chapter has sufficient ships to act as a spacebound home base, including equipment transports and landing craft. Space Marine Chapter Masters are at liberty to commission new ships, or capture enemy ones, and use them how they will. Individual Space Marine Chapters use their own colour schemes and markings, and their ships are immediately identifiable.
Interstellar ships, space stations, mines, and factory craft also owned by individuals, corporations or mercantile families make up a fairly small fraction of the total. As far as interstellar travel is concerned the Imperium is all–powerful; elements not controlled by the Imperium are only permitted to exist because their owners are cooperative and useful.
Most noteworthy of these privately owned ventures are the Rogue Traders and the great mercantile families of Navigators. Even the largest of these families owns a relatively small number of craft, but in terms of real wealth this represents a huge investment. Most of these ships are ancient — family possessions nurtured and maintained over the millennia — but they are generally large and well built.
The Imperium is large, large enough to hide in if you really want to. The Administratum has a great deal of control over interstellar shipping one way or another, but even so, illegal interstellar craft still lurk on the fringes of society. These ships are owned and operated by unregistered merchants, smugglers, and even by pirates. They are taking a grave risk, because any unregistered ship would be automatically assumed to be hostile by Naval forces.
All illegal ships are at a considerable disadvantage compared to registered vessels. Navigators are, on the whole, loyal citizens. They are also quite rare. Interstellar travel without a Navigator is relatively slow because the maximum distance a ship can jump is only four light years — compared to 5,000 with a piloted jump. There are some Navigators who will work onboard illegal ships, but they are few and far between. The vast majority of illegal interstellar shipping is therefore locally based, usually operating within a group of close sub-sectors or from peripheral inter-sectors.
There are many reasons why a captain may be tempted to run an illegal ship. Planets all have local laws governing what can and can’t be imported and exported. Some planetary governments also charge an import duty or have complex quarantine laws. The cargos and passengers of official ships are always carefully checked and recorded. Many routes are the property of hereditary captains or are operated exclusively under a fleet charter.
There are all sorts of people, including Imperial Commanders, who may wish to circumvent one or other of these obstacles. Even registered ships may be tempted to break the law occasionally if the price is right, but they run a far greater risk because their craft are very easily identified and traced.
A typical unregistered ship operates out of a hidden supply dump near the solar system’s jump point. It would be foolish for the captain to bring his ship into the solar system itself, so cargos are ferried to the supply dump by sub-stellar ships. The location of the ship’s dump must be kept secret, and it is often necessary for a captain to change the base’s location every few months. An Imperial Commander may take a lax attitude to illegal shipping if it suits his purposes to do so. The illegal trader’s greatest enemy is treachery.
Interstellar pirate ships operate in a similar way to unregistered traders, but their intentions are far more sinister. Few Imperial Commanders will tolerate pirates in their system, so most pirate bases are within otherwise uninhabited systems. Some pirates operate exclusively against registered shipping, others are indiscriminate in their choice of victim. Pirates and unregistered traders often collaborate, sharing information and sometimes using the same facilities.
A pirate’s usual mode of operation is to lie in wait just inside a system’s jump point. If the target is leaving the system, the chances are that any accompanying sub-stellar craft will have now turned back. The pirate leaps upon the craft, aiming to board and remove cargo before the ship jumps. Although a pirate could attack and destroy a cargo vessel, little would be gained by doing so.
Raiders are interstellar craft belonging to enemy forces. Exactly whose enemy they are depends on whose side you are on, of course. Imperial Commanders are prone to quarrel with their neighbours. In these quarrels one side may be prepared to hire illegal ships, even pirates, to attack and destroy a rival’s shipping. Such fights are common, but are directed mainly against sub-stellar craft belonging to the foe. It would be extremely stupid for an Imperial Commander to attack Imperial Navy vessels — to do so would invite immediate and uncompromising retribution. Needless to say, mistakes do happen, and Imperial Commanders often find themselves on the wrong end of the Imperium’s retribution.