This page was last updated on 28 September 2012.

The Exordium Series

by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge


Overview of the series

The Universe of Exordium: The Exordium mailing list

Thoughts on how to do Exordium: The Board Game

Unanswered questions

Three last comments

  • While the look has change a little, the content is seriously long in the tooth, and needs to be revamped.
  • Dave Trowbridge has looked this page over, and has corrected a few mistakes on my part. I expect more corrections to follow, so check back every now and then.
  • Exordium is being UPDATED and reissued, via Book View Cafe!

Overview of the series

Exordium is a series consisting of five books published by Tor Books. The five books are The Phoenix in Flight, The Ruler of Naught, A Prison Unsought, The Rifter's Covenant, and The Thrones of Kronos. It is a story of love and revenge, loyalty and honor, fealty and betrayal. It is epic space opera in the very best sense of the term.

The best place to learn about the plot of the series is through the back cover blurbs, which are recreated at the Exordium webpage maintained by Dave Trowbridge. Suffice it to say here that years ago Gelasar hai-Arkad, 46th Panarch of the Thousand Suns, defeated the Avatar of Dol in war. A generation later, the Avatar exacts his revenge through the use of million-year-old technology and an alliance with the pirates of the Rifter Brotherhood. With his father imprisoned and his two older brothers dead, Brandon vlith-Arkad is on the run with an agenda of his own. But the Avatar learns the same lesson Alexander the Great learned millenia ago -- to conquer is one thing, to rule another...

I rank this series with some of my all-time favorites, such as McDevitt's A Talent for War, Wren's The Phoenix Legacy, Downbelow Station and the rest of Cherryh's Alliance/Union books, and Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps. The background is rich and textured, and the authors weave their story with enviable skill and grace. Many if not most of the entries in the "galactic empire" genre are little more than warmed-over transpositions of the Middle Ages into a future settings. This series, on the other hand, has many details, large and small, which give it a character and meaning beyond those others. Some of these details are discussed below.

I do have a minor word of warning: It takes about a hundred pages or so to "get into" the story. I don't know of a single person who, having made it to that point, did not immediately want to read all the other books as soon as possible.

For the gamers reading this: By the time I finished the first book I came to the conclusion that this series was everything that Classic Traveller and MegaTraveller roleplaying games should have been. I also think it would make an exciting boardgame, although there are some real challenges in implementing it.

NOTE: While I have tried not to give away too many specific plot points, please note that, of necessity, everything below this statement is riddled with spoilers!!

The Universe of Exordium

Politics, government, and society in the Exordium universe

The government of the Thousand Suns has a decentralized feudal structure, as defined by the Covenant of Anarchy written a millennia ago by Jaspar Arkad. This structure, known as the Panarchy, is to some degree a concession to necessity, as communications are limited to the speed of the courier ships which connect the information systems of the various worlds. The head of state and government is known as the Panarch, and claims direct lineal descent from Jaspar Arkad himself.

Theoretically, citizens of the Thousand Suns fall into one of two classes. The first of these are the Douloi, the nobility who make up the Service Familes. As can be inferred from the name, the Service Families operate under a strict code of honor and service, and in return receive wealth and privilege. Such service is voluntary -- no one is forced to take the pledge, but breaking the pledge of service is considered tantamount to treason. One of the most honored portions of the code of the Douloi decrees that decisions must be made with an eye towards the good of the whole and with a specific disregard for how the decision will affect one's own family. Thus, holding a loved one hostage in exchange for some action on the part of a noble not only will be ineffective, but immediately removes the desired action from the list of options a Douloi can consider. The most powerful of the Service Families is, of course, the Phoenix House, House Arkad.

The bulk of the citizenry belong to the Polloi. In general, Polloi are not held to as high a standard of the Douloi. Polloi can be made members of the Douloi due to merit, and theoretically the Thousand Suns is a meritocracy regarding most occupations. Douloi politics are as vicious as they are subtle, however, so most Polloi would not necessarily consider elevation to the Douloi a goal worth striving for. Douloi and Polloi maintain a working relationship roughly analogous to that between management and labor in contemporary America; the Douloi hold many of the cards, but the Polloi outnumber them many times over, and are not without power.

Note also that there is considerable room for local variation within the Thousand Suns -- the Barcans in particular seem to have a class system unique to themselves, not to mention aliens such as the Kelly -- and a large minority of the citizenry operate outside of the system, either on their own or as members of the loose affiliation of pirates and smugglers known as the Rifter Brotherhood. Generally, such outsiders are ignored, as long as they don't make too many waves.

There are worlds outside the polity of the Thousand Suns, but located either within or close to its borders. Dol'jhar, for example, is an inhospitable world settled by another band of humans who fled through the space time wormhole from Earth at a different time than the people who Jaspar Arkad eventually brought together in the Panarchy. Dol'jhar fought the Thousand Suns -- and lost -- a generation ago. In addition, a race of dog-like aliens, the Shiiadra, periodically lay siege to Panarchic worlds; the location of their world(s) is unknown.

Most planetary systems within the Thousand Suns enjoy a high degree of autonomy, and within the limitations of the Covenant of Anarchy (mostly dealing with foreign policy, the armed forces, the justice system, and intersystem trade), are free to enact their own laws, etc.. Panarchic authority in a system takes three general forms: the Panarchic justice system (which deals with crimes against the Panarchy as a whole, and which I hope to discuss in detail at a future time), the Panarchic Fleet, and the local Archon.

Each planetary system has an Archon, who functions as both the people's representative to the Panarch and the Panarch's representative to the people. An Archon wields great authority, (including command of Naval forces in the area, much like colonial governors and ambassadors today), although Archons who abuse their power are sometimes overthrown by their people. Such events are considered "internal affairs", and the Covenant of Anarchy prevents Arkadic meddling in internal affairs.

There is another authority which may or may not be present as well: Since the Panarchy's vast size and population means that the Panarch can hardly be aware of all the acts that are performed in his name, trusted individuals -- called Praerogates -- are secretly given the authority to speak for the Panarch in times of crisis. The status of a Praerogate Occult remains secret until he declares himself; the computers know, however, and in a society where computer access and control is both trivial and vital, he who controls the computers controls the situation. This authority can only be used once; a Praerogate who has used his or her authority is known as a Praerogate Overt, and while honored, can never use the authority again. While not infallible, this system is somewhat effective in guarding against abuses of power, and in ensuring that the policies of the Phoenix House are carried out.

The Panarchists understand the importance of symbols. Thus, the College of Archetype and Ritual studies the symbology of events and actions, and creates ceremonies rich with subconscious meaning.

Computer technology in the Exordium universe

Not surprisingly for a star-spanning civilization over a thousand years old, the computer technology of the Thousand Suns is both powerful and unobtrusive. Extensive yet decentralized computer systems are a fact of everyday life. Access to these systems is through either ubiquitous terminals located in offices and dwellings, or through a combination personal digital assistant/computer terminal/communication system known as a "boswell." Fancy (i.e., expensive) boswells communicate with their owners via neural induction which, among other things, allow private communications in the midst of crowded rooms.

Macro-level computer programming is often done through the use of computer worms which wander the system making changes to the code. Given the vast size of the Panarchy and the extensive use of computers, these worms can wander for centuries. There is the Praerogacy Worm, for example, which adds the identities of the Praerogates Occult to the network, and modifies their status when they have become Overt. Another example concerns the a worm released after a Panarch had been removed by the people and the nobility for committin an unspeakable act against his subjects. One of his punishments was the release of a computer worm which obliterated every record of his name and face. It continues to the present, making sure that no record of The Faceless One is allowed to exist.

Specialized computers also give the Panarchic Navy an edge over its rivals. Battle computers are controlled and display information by means of a system of glyphs (called the Tenno) which, like Chinese, can display huge amounts of data with only a few characters. As Dave Trowbridge has described it, "the Tenno are actually a 'semiotic computational system' whose syntax and semantics are highly correlated, making it difficult or impossible to compose a nonsensical tactical statement. It may be a useless one, but it will be a valid tactical 'sentence' if you will." The Tenno encode information regarding where ships can and can't be (due to relativistic effects), the effectiveness of the various sensors given the level of dust and noise in a system, etc., automatically, and present this information in a format instantly digestible by the human operator. The Tenno are the ultimate user interface, and gives a tremendous advantage in battle to those who have mastered it.

The Tenno's greatest strength is also the Panarchic Navy's Achilles heel, for the Doljharians have acquired FTL communications; as a result, the "Rifter ships are behaving (because of FTL knowledge) in ways that are tactically impossible in fourspace -- for instance, two ships executing coordinated maneuvers while separated" by distances over which there would ordinarily be a communications time lag. When the computers attempt to process that information -- "derived by quite complex pattern recognition algorithms" -- they literally cannot process the data. [For those worried that I just gave away an important plot point, the Rifter FTL comm is revealed in the first 100 pages of the 2500 page series.]

Please note, though, that the Panarchy does not have self-aware computer systems. The ancestors of the population of the Thousand Suns made the hazardous jump through the spacetime vortex fleeing a group of self-aware machines known as the Adamantines, and periodically even today an infestation of Adamantines will be uncovered, sometimes forcing the extermination of entire worlds. Not surprisingly, the Ban against self-aware machines is treated with the utmost seriousness, and is taken as an article of faith amongst almost all worlds of the Panarchy.

Space travel in the Exordium universe

This section copyright 1997, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge.
Text written mostly by Dave Trowbridge, with significant editing and embellishment by Christopher Weuve.

Space travel in the Panarchy is quite an advanced affair. Realspace propulsion is through a gravitic effect, commonly referred to as the "geeplane," that creates a gravitational warp which mimics a dense plane of matter that is infinite in extent. A ship under geeplane is in freefall; the crew experiences no acceleration. Gravitational compensation is accomplished through a combination of the geeplane and of protational gravitic reactors (gravtors). These also serve to protect the crew from the effects of externally-induced accelerations; for example, boarding lances (see below) temporarily overload their geeplanes as they smash through the weakened tesla shields of ships they are attacking.

FTL propulsion is through an adaptation of the geeplane known as the "fiveskip," so-called because a ship under this drive skips in and out of fourspace, like a rock across a pond. Theory says that if a the drive could be sustained (rather than skipping) without burning out the drive, the ship would fall off the edge of the universe, some 30 billion light-years away, in literally no time at all. That's bad enough, but theory also says the ship would attain infinite mass and swallow the universe in the process, so it is fortunate that there appears to be no way to make a fiveskip operate continuously.
The fiveskip is necessary for timely in-system flight, but many small ships do not have it, confining them to inner space or necessitating long flights. This is one of the reasons for the stability of the Panarchy, but fiveskips are getting cheaper at the time of the Exordium, and the Panarchy is feeling the effects of the increased freedom this offers. Rifter activity is up, too.

There is a minimum distance for a skip, which depends on the drive frequency. Higher frequency skipping results in greater speed; lower frequency skipping results in a lower pseudovelocity and thus finer control. As a result, most tactical maneuvering is done at lower frequencies. Unfortunately, the fiveskip cannot be used for lots of little jumps without "overheating" or becoming destabilized; lower jump frequencies are harder on the fiveskip and destabilize it faster. Since lower frequencies also tend to leave the ship with a higher residual fourspace velocity, during a long battle the fourspace speed of the combattants can build up to an appreciable fraction of light speed.

The fiveskip is directional and only works along one axis, which is conventionally the forward/aft axis. This enables tactical transponders and sensors to report on the direction a ship went when it skipped. There's no reason why it couldn't be any other axis. However, changing the axis is a major engineering job and is rarely done, especially since the surprise factor is eliminated the first few times you use it. Turns are accomplished by changing the facing of the ship while in fourspace, in between skips.

Fiveskip speeds are rated in terms of 1000 Cee (Cee = speed of light); the average starship is rated at 8.5, or 8500 times the speed of light, which translates into about one lightyear per hour. The actual rating of a drive is comprised of many factors, including its maximum and minimum frequency, duty cycle, speed and so forth. For example, the ship of the protagonists, the Telvarna, has the Panarchy equivalent of a tractor motor -- biased towards low frequency operation, making it very powerful, and therefore maneuverable, but not tremendously fast in hyperflight. Its hyperspeed rating is 8.44.

Within a certain precise calculated distance of a gravity source -- known as the 'skip radius' -- any use of a fiveskip results catastrophic inversion of the ship in three dimensions. This radius is often artificially extended around inhabited worlds and their highdwellings by a resonance generator, which, however, must be outside the new, artificial radius, making it vulnerable to attack. Since skip, even at low frequencies, is so fast, it is dangerous to use it for course correction near radius.

Weapons technology in the Exordium universe

This section copyright 1997, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge.
Text written mostly by Dave Trowbridge, with significant editing and embellishment by Christopher Weuve.

The two most destructive naval weapons are "ruptors" and "skipmissiles".

Ruptors use gravity beams, and literally vibrate their targets to pieces -- this makes them especially useful against fragile equipment, such as fiveskip engines. Since ruptors manipulate artifical gravity, they can also be used as tractor beams. Ruptors are not affected by Tesla shields, and have a longer range than skipmissiles, although, unlike skipmissiles, they are limited to lightspeed. Ruptors are so large that only battlecruisers carry them.

Ruptors are greatly attenuated in an atmosphere, and are affected by dust and other debris in planetary space. As a result, ruptors have their greatest effect and range at the beginning of an engagement, before dust and debris from destroyed ships cloud the field of battle. For this reason, destroyers will try to take on a battlecruiser in an asteroid belt, using skipmissiles to fragment asteroids and create a dust shield to cut down the effectiveness of ruptors (and make them visible).

Skipmissiles are photon torpedo-like energy/plasma bursts which skips in and out of hyperspace on their way to their target, leaving a characteristic string-of-pearls visual signature. They are fired from a skipmissile tube, a kilometer(s)-long affair running the long axis of a ship. As a result, firing a skipmissile requires slewing the whole ship to point at the target, which makes them more difficult to aim than ruptors. Skipmissiles are faster and more powerful than ruptor beams, and are not affected by gas and dust as are ruptors. On the other hand, skipmissiles have a shorter range (only a few light seconds) and require recharging between firings.

Skipmissiles are especially useful in assaults on the planetary-scale tesla shields which protect all civilized worlds. "The Shield" transfers the momentum energy of an assault through 90 degrees, but as they are not 100 percent efficient, some of the energy is transmitted directly to the planetary crust; if a siege is long and intense enough, eventually the planet must surrender or it will suffer a series of increasingly-powerful earthquakes. In one battle, both sides refrain from using skipmissiles because an accidental hit on a nearby shieldless planet would kill billions.

Ships are also armed with various missiles and lazplaz (laser plasma) weapons. Other missile weapons are not much use against properly tuned teslas (except for shaped charges, which are difficult to deliver, since they must actually hit the ship dead on, and sneak missiles, which rely on data-destroying laser beams), and radiation weapons are usually ineffective except at extreme close range.

Warships in the Exordium universe

This section copyright 1997, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge.
Text written by Dave Trowbridge and Christopher Weuve.

Egg-shaped vessels with an average length of 7 kilometers, battlecruisers are the largest weapons ever built by man. A standard battlecruiser is armed with six ruptor turrets (three on each end -- designated alpha, beta, and gamma), a kilometer(s)-long skipmissile tube along the long axis of the ship, and a variety of missile tubes, heavy radiation weapons, and deployed vessels. Given their size, battlecruisers have relatively small crews of only a few thousand; the bulk of the ship is made up of spin reactors and other machinery that is best kept at a distance.

A battlecruiser's most fearsome "weapon," however, is its highly accurate passive sensor array, which allows it to see -- and hence attack -- targets that are literally invisible to other ships. Assuming an effective 6-km diameter sensor array distributed throughout the hull of the vessel, battlecruisers have an optical resolution 40-50 centimeters at one light second, 2.4-3.0 meters at one light minute, and 144-180 meters at one light hour. (Thermal resolution is about half as good, i.e. 80-100 centimeters at one light second, and microwave even worse.) In addition, a ship can deploy an EM-linked array of sensors to increase resolution radically. For instance, by deploying 4-8 corvettes or cutters with optical/thermal sensors at a distance of one light second, a battlecruiser can (theoretically) increase resolution by 150,000. With this small number of sensors, however, the signal-to-noise ratio is not very good, so actual resolution is less. Nonetheless, it permits observing things several days in the past with resolution adequate enough to watch the details of a battle.

Tesla shields work by translating the momentum of an attack, such as a skipmissile strike, through 90 degrees. They are not 100 percent efficient, however; some of the energy gets through. Their efficiency is proportional to the mass of the object generating the field. As a result, a battlecruiser's mass makes its tesla shields more effective than any other type of ship, so it cannot be destroyed by a single (standard) skipmissile strike. This mass better dissipates ruptor hits as well. However, a skipmissile impact does cause oscillations of the shields, which generally die down before a single destroyer can recharge to fire again. This is why it takes three destroyers to take on a battlecruiser: they must fire on it in sequence to overwhelm its shields. Battlecruisers can recharge faster than destroyers, so battlecruisers can destroy each other, although with difficulty.

Battlecruisers are equipped with fiveskips.

Destroyers are kilometer-long vessels second only to battlecruisers in destructiveness. Like a battlecruiser, destroyers mount a single skipmissile tube (in addition to assorted missiles and medium/heavy radiation weapons), but their lighter tesla shields mean that they cannot withstand even a single direct hit by a skipmissile. In addition, their lighter mass means that a solid ruptor hit will generally do severe damage, and their slower skipmissile recharge time means that a battlecruiser will get off more shots. As a result, a destroyer will lose a one-on-one stand-up fight with a battle cruiser -- which is why they generally operate in packs and prefer hit-and-run tactics. A sufficiently large number of skilled destroyers can defeat a battlecruiser, but they must do it through guile and cunning, not direct attack.

The Panarchic Navy generally employs destroyers in support of battlecruisers -- the combination of a battlecruiser plus destroyer escort (with frigates, etc.) is very powerful. For instance, the battlecruiser can use its superior sensor array to longrange the enemy, relaying positions to destroyers and frigates in close support and thus enabling them to drop into the midst of the enemy without warning. In addition, a battlecruiser may loose a barrage of ruptor beams from mid-range -- the paths of which are known to the escorting destroyers and other ships. The escorts can then maneuver the enemy into the path of the incoming fire.

Destroyers are equipped with fiveskips.

The smallest independent naval warships, frigates are generally outclassed in fleet engagements by destroyers and battlecruisers, and hence are used mainly in a supporting (e.g., reconnaissance) role. They are armed with assorted missiles and medium/heavy radiation weapons. Frigates are equipped with fiveskips.

A battlecruiser can carry up to 12 corvettes, which are used for tactical reconaissance during battle, or for landing operations. They are lightly armed with assorted missiles and medium/light radiation weapons. Corvettes are equipped with fiveskips.

A smaller version of a corvette, one or two are carried by Panarchist destroyers. They are lightly armed with assorted missiles and light radiation weapons. Cutters are equipped with fiveskips.

Lances are specialized craft used for boarding operations. They are, in effect, disposable manned harpoons using nuclear shaped-charges to breach a ship's tesla shields. Lances are used exclusively by the power-armored Arkadic Marines, the most elite service in the Thousand Suns -- or anywhere else, for that mattter. [Power armor is very difficult to use; it takes a minimum of a year of intense training and complete mastery of the martial art known as Ulanshu before a recuit is even allowed to try the armor on for size. This is not simply to maximize their effectiveness -- anything less and they would be a danger to themselves and their comrades.] Lances are carried by battlecruisers, or, in special ops, destroyers. Succesful operation of a lance destroys it. Lances are not equipped with fiveskips, but they do have heavy duty geeplanes, sufficient to ram through the hull of a destroyer or battlecruiser.

"Tacponder" is a contraction of "tactical transponder," an unmanned, stealthed oberservation platform routinely deployed by Panarchic forces before and during battle. Tacponders are used to detect and report enemy movements, and report when they receive a properly coded query. They can form virtual arrays, and can help discover pattern in opponents' maneuvers. Most Panarchic systems are already seeded with dormant tacponders.

Sneak missiles
Sneak missiles are unmanned, semi-intelligent homing weapons with dataruptors (lasers) or, shaped charges for shield disruption. They are released during fleet actions, and are equipped with IIF systems.

Squealers are tactical beacons or decoys.

Naval tactics in the Exordium universe

This section copyright 1997, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge.
Text written by Dave Trowbridge and Christopher Weuve.


There are a number of parallels between the strategic and tactical situation in Exordium, and that during the Napoleonic Wars. Even bringing the enemy to battle was difficult:

Fleets first had to find each other in an environment without landmarks; they then had to choose formations which allowed their firepower to bear; finally they had to hold the enemy in play sufficiently long for firepower to take effect.
John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (1988), p. 5-6
In Exordium, engagements take place in solar systems, usually near transponders, which are the navigational features most quickly used. (Sighting on stars takes more time, and is far less accurate. Most navigation relies on transponders or beacons). Ship positioning is very important, as a ship's fiveskip drive only works along the axis of the ship, which is also the direction the skipmissile tube is mounted. Battlecruisers can generally take hits even from other battlecruisers for long periods of time. Finally, the fiveskip makes it easy to flee a losing engagement.

As a result of these factors, conclusive battles are rare. In fact, except for Panarchist ships destroyed by surprise early in the series (due to underestimating the power of newly-upgraded Rifter weapons), the only conclusive battles that we know of were the Battle of Arthelion, in which the Panarchists captured a functional hyperwave at the cost of two battlecruisers, three destroyers, and six frigates, along with a number of corvettes, and the final battle at the Suneater.

If you can find an opponent willing to engage, the closer you are willing to fight, the more effective you will be, for two reasons. First, the more willing you are to fight at close range, the more tactical knowledge you will have. Those who play it safe lose the tactical advantage and the battle. Second, ships are potentially able to do more damage up close. Nelson's dictum (from his instructions before Trafalgar) that "no captain will err by laying his ship alongside the enemy" is quite applicable.

Battles are fought of ranges from fractions of light seconds up to about ten light minutes. The longer ranges are just for targeting and observing, actual weapons fire tends to take place at no more than a light minute or so.

Detailed examination of naval tactics

A while ago I (Chris Weuve) became engaged in a conversation with Chris Klug and Fred Kiesche regarding the naval tactics used in the Exordium series. (Indeed, that conversation was really the genesis of this website.) At some point I decided to copy Dave Trowbridge on the discussion, so that he could correct me if I said something really stupid. The basics of that conversation -- with much input at a later date from Dave Trowbridge -- follow. [Special thanks to all the participants -- some of their comments are incorporated below.]

At one point, Margot Ng, Captain of the Panarchic Navy battlecruiser Grozniy, thinks about the tactical differences between her world and that of her hero, British Admiral Horatio Nelson, the brilliant victor of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). After thinking about some of the similarities (strategic communications limited to the speed of the fastest ship, tactical communications difficult at best, commanders with huge amounts of discretion, etc.), she considers some of the differences:

Still, what would [Nelson] have made of relativistic tactics, where the order of events depends on where you watch them from? Of being able to watch an action a day after it happened? Or of being able to skip out of a battle, watch your enemy's tactics again from a different angle, free of battle-pressure, then return to the fray with a new plan? Or using the fiveskip to attack the same ship from three different positions simultaneously? [Ruler of Naught, p.60; emphasis added]
What exactly does that last sentence mean? How can one ship attack from three different directions at once?

The answer lies in tactical FTL travel. The fiveskip drive used in the Exordium universe, unlike, say, the jump drives in GDW's Traveller, Gallacci's Albedo or Pournelle's CoDominium series, allow precision tactical FTL skips on demand over relatively short distances. As a result, ships can actually move faster than most (if not all -- skipmissiles are FTL) weapons fire, and hence can move in closer and fire again (from a different direction) before the first shot arrives. Here's an example (using numbers picked for ease of explanation, not consistency with the books):

An attacker is currently in the 12 o'clock position 3 light minutes away from its target.
  1. The attacker fires a ruptor from 3 light minutes. The ruptor beam moves at lightspeed, so it will take 3 minutes to reach its target.

  2. The attacker then skips to a new location 2 light minutes away and at the 3 o'clock position relative to the target. When the rupter beam fired in #1 is exactly 2 minutes away from the target, the attacker fires from the new position.

  3. The attacker then skips to a new location 1 light minute away and at the 6 o'clock position relative to the target. When the rupter beams fired in #1 and #2 are exactly 1 minute away from the target, the attacker fires from the new position.

  4. In one minute from #3, three different ruptor beams, each fired from the same ship, will converge in from three different directions each 90 degrees apart, striking the target at the same time.
Since the information regarding the attackers location is also moving at lightspeed (unlike in Star Trek, which combines tactical FTL capabilities with FTL sensors), the ship being attacked has a very difficult time knowing the exact location of the attacker. The target will be able to sort things out, of course, since the nearer the attacker is when it fired, the larger the image the target will see, but it's still difficult to make these determinations immediately in the heat of battle. And, of course, the attacker has jumped since then, and is plotting the next attack...

This is a very simplistic example; in a "real" battle, both sides would be jumping all over the place, trying to get off shots without getting hit in return. They would probably also be firing skipmissiles, which move at FTL speeds, although I suppose that skipmissiles may move too fast for such a coordinated attack to be possible, and may be too difficult to hit with at long range. More on this below.

Later in the same book we read the following:

"...Ng's fingers, poised over her console, tingled as battle-readiness gripped her.
"Ruptor turrets ready, skipmissile charged," said Krajno.
"Very well. Take us in," she said.
"Ten light-minutes out and over Treymontaigne," announced the navigator as the fiveskip engaged.
"Targets bearing 144 mark 32, plus 13 light-seconds, frigate; 186 mark 61, plus 80 light-seconds, destroyer, Alpha!"

Waitaminute! If the information regarding the location of the targets is moving at the speed of light, how can Grozniy detect the targets? The targets are 13 and 80 light-seconds away, respectively. What sensor told them the target location immediately after they skipped in?

Any of their passive sensors -- optical, infrared, etc. The key here is that the target was stationary for a relatively long time. During this time, it is constantly emitting radiation, reflecting light, etc. The best way to think of this is simply as "information" -- the mechanics of exactly what wavelength of photon the ships are using in the sensors is irrelevant, the important point is that the information is limited to the speed of light, whereas the ships themselves are not.

[Note: the combination of the light speed delay and the extreme effectiveness of passive sensors have made active sensors such as radar useless (in space, at least) except for highly specialized tasks, e.g., docking control.]

So, the ship is constantly emitting information which can be detected by the appropriate sensor. The attacker skips in 3 light minutes away, at which point the information that every body is always emitting (in normal space, anyway) begins racing towards the target -- it will arrive in three minutes. The attacker can see the target now, however, because he can see the information that the target emitted three minutes ago.

So, any time a ship skips into a location with objects (ships, bases, highdwellings) that have been stationary for a while, there is a window of opportunity determined by the distance between the object and the intruder. During this time window, the intruder can act before the stationary object detects the intruder. If, for example, I skip in 3 light minutes from another ship, I have three minutes to react before the other ship will detect my presence and hence react to it. In a combat situation, that reaction may be to close for an attack, fire ruptors (which are limited to lightspeed), fire skipmissiles (which are faster than light), or run like hell. Sometimes the first the stationary ship knows about an intruder is when the skipmissile hits it -- what is often referred to in the defense business as a "flaming datum."

For this reason, standard operating procedures dictate that even ships that are "keeping station" run through a series of preprogrammed pseudo-random skips -- called "drunkwalks" -- designed to prevent an enemy from observing them from a distance and then jumping in close for a quick skipmissile attack. Drunkwalks are "pseudo-random" because, if nothing else, you can't wander too far from your patrol area.

Now, once the battle starts, nobody stays in one place very long -- at least nobody on the winning side. They are constantly skipping all over the place, trying to figure out where the opponents are, getting off shots when they can, managing both the incoming information from other ships (which is all arriving out of order -- information from two minutes ago may arrive ahead of information from five mintues ago, depending on the relative locations of all the vessels involved) and the outgoing information from their own ship. Also, since a ship can only skip in the direction it is facing, it is tactically critical to obtain a "vector" on an opponent. There are various decoy mechanisms to disguise the vector of a ship, but in general they are good only beyond visual distance.

The radiants (reactor exhausts) of a ship are its weakest point, and at close enough range become the preferred target. Firing directly into the radiants (a "reaming" shot) is similar in effect to the "raking broadside" of wooden-ship warfare (firing through the stern or bow). The teslas do protect this area, but not as effectively as elsewhere, which is why the radiants are generally concentrated at a ship's rear even when not used for supplemental thrust. (This is because a warship, in general, is trying to point its nose -- i.e., its skipmissile tube -- at the enemy.) Experiments have shown that distributing the radiants across the entire hull creates too many weak points.

Ships can't radio sensor data to each other, either, because radio is limited to lightspeed, and hence doesn't help -- by the time your message has arrived, the receiving ship has already read and analyzed the same information from its own sensors. Note, however, that the Panarchic Navy has had a thousand years to place extensive nets of tacponders which collect sensor data and radio traffic, and which will dump that info upon receiving a properly coded request. These are significant, as even info which is out of date for targetting purposes can provide crucial pieces of the overall puzzle, such as ship identities, the total number of enemy ships, drunkwalk patterns, etc..

Okay, I made a comment about managing outgoing info. How do you manage outgoing information? While you can do things to decrease your signature -- put the ship on low-power status to prevent the enemy from detecting the neutrinos from your engines, powering down your weapons and tesla shields, etc. -- in most instances these actions prevent you from doing anything but hiding. As a result, "managing" outgoing information may be the wrong term -- "being aware of" probably works better, although you can use your presence to herd a ship in a particular direction. The size of the information wave that describes your current location gets bigger the longer that you remain in normal space. The bigger your current information wave is, the worse it is for you, because the more likely it is that the bad guy has picked up that wave and knows where you are. [You can think of this as a big "Shoot Me" sign that gets bigger and more visible with time.] Hence, you generally want to keep moving, to minimize the amount of current information the enemy has. The idea is to drop inside of his information propagation wave, so that you know where he is and can act before he can see you. At the same time, he's trying to do the same to you.

So, what type of "information" does your ship radiate as part of its signature? One of the most distinctive features of a ship's signature for obtaining a vector are the fields generated by the skipmissile launch tube when the skipmissile is charging or charged. Since the launch tube is largely exposed on a destroyer, it is almost impossible to disguise the vector of one of these craft. It's a bit easier with a battlecruiser, due to its mass. The presence of the fields can be detected from farther away than their orientation; if so detected, an opposing captain knows that she doesn't have to get as close to vector the opponent, giving her more time for targeting.

Holding the skipmissile in the precharge state is one way of disguising this information, since the launch tube is not radiating until the charge sequence starts. The disadvantage here is the ten-second or so delay it takes to fire a skipmissile from the precharge state. Ten seconds is a long time in combat; a captain whose ship can target and fire more quickly can skip in closer for targeting (targeting time is limited by light-speed delay from emergence to target vessel) and thus overcome the decoy mechanism more easily.

The emergence pulse of a ship exaggerates the signature, making it detectable from a much greater distance.

The "fly in the ointment" for the Rifters is that they are using surplus Navy vessels -- the plans of which are on file in the computers of every capital ship in the Navy. Since it is very expensive to change a large ship's signature, most Rifter ships of frigate class and up don't bother. [The crew of the Telvarna did, which is why it wasn't identified over Arthelion.] In addition, the Navy has a very effective Military Intelligence section, which correlates information from RiftNet (the Rifter Brotherhood's equivalent of America Online) with numerous field agents (many of them Rifters with a grudge) in the Brotherhood and on Rifthaven. As a result, the Navy has a fairly good idea of the modifications made to each Rifter ship, including the tactical algorithms that automate the modified drunkwalks used by ships keeping station. The Navy also keeps extensive files on the captains and crews of these ships (tactical abilities, personality profiles, and maintenance practices, as well as the usual crimes and misdemeanors). As a consequence, Navy ships can somewhat predict the tactical behavior of any particular Rifter ship once they identify it.

Tracking information propagation is one of the reasons why the Tenno is so important, as it not only allows huge amounts of information to be presented in a very efficient manner, but the computers using it also do a massive amount of preprocessing, integrating the sensor tracks of targets that are constantly skipping in and out, detecting information from ships out of sequence and putting it back together in a usable form, comparing this information to a particular target's datafile, etc.. Without these computers, the command staff would take the same three weeks to plot the battle that Dave Trowbridge says it took him to plot the Battle of Arthelion. <grin> Some of this preprocessing involves such things as calculating when enemy forces become aware of your presence (remember the bit about managing outgoing information?), and plotting reactions to it. Because of the chaotic nature of the situation, a lot of this output is predictive (like Cherryh's longscan -- see also C.J. Cherryh's essay from The Company War boardgame), similar in principle to the way the mechanical gunnery computers on a WW2-era battleship factored in the speed of both ships, wind, barometric pressure, latitude, range, bearing, etc., to allow the ship to fire shells at the predicted location of the enemy battleship.

The FTL communications device given to the Rifters by the Doljharians, however, allowed Rifter ships to react to things that their ship hadn't seen yet, because they could radio information to each other. The Panarchic computers literally did not know how to process this behavior, and did not have the glyphs to display it even if the structure of the Tenno language would have let them. This left the Panarchic ships at a crippling disadvantage until they figured out what was going on and updated the Tenno accordingly.

The Exordium mailing list

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Thoughts on how to do Exordium: The Board Game

As a hardcore wargamer, my natural inclination is to try to turn books I like -- and which present interesting tactical and strategic situations -- into wargames. With Exordium, though, the information propagation problem that makes naval combat interesting to read makes a tactical board or miniatures game based difficult at best. I used to think such a game was impossible; I've recently come to the conclusion that the spirit of the books can be preserved in the board game, even if the exact mechanism of combat can't be repeated in detail. In other words, an approach leaning towards a "Design for Cause" philosophy (which focuses on processes) would be too unwieldy, but a "Design for Effect" approach (which focuses on outcomes) might be feasible. A strategic-level boardgame, possibly using a system similar to Prism's Throneworld or Mark Herman's We the People, would be very feasible.

Why does the "information propogation problem" make the "Design for Cause" approach unworkable? The short answer is that players simply have too much information about where everything is and what is going on, when the essence of Exordium combat is the combatants acting and reacting as they receive info. This might still be manageable if it wasn't for the tactical use of the fiveskip drive. Given a referee, individual ship commanders, a blind setup (so each player has his own map), a willingness to not be too anal retentive about it (perhaps justified by the idea that the combatants all have battle computers to sort these things out) and a lot of sweat, I think that the information propagation problem could be solved if ships were moving at slower-than-light speeds once the battle started. Take, for example, the situations presented in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station and other books. The information propogation effect is very important in her works as well (especially when the attackers first jump in), but as the ships get closer and closer together, it becomes an easier problem to solve. (For more information on this, once again see C.J. Cherryh's essay from The Company War boardgame). Plotting orders several turns in advance can go a long way towards making it playable without a referee, although I have yet to find a good referee-less Design for Cause solution to the problem of ships being different distances from each other, and hence having different length information delays.

Tactical FTL capability, however, makes solving this problem pretty darn close to impossible, at least under a Design for Cause methodology. Every information propogation wave from every turn must be tracked, like a series of expanding waves from an almost infinite numbers of stones thrown sequentially into a pond. In essence, any time a ship moved the board would need to be photographed, and selective portions of the board (based on both location and time) would need to be made available to the different players as they skipped around. Even if we make the not-unreasonable assumption that the combatant's battlecomputers will resolve the odd out-of-temporal-sequence of information reception, an umpired one-on-one ship battle would still be very difficult to make both feasible and enjoyable for all involved.

On the other hand, a Design for Effect approach, focusing on the outcomes and "feel" of the books rather than the exact mechanisms, is more feasible. Exordium combat can be described in terms of targetting solutions, which in turn are affected by range and other factors. If one accounts for these factors, I think it would be possible to create a game which has the flavor of the series, without requiring double-blind play or other hindrances. Not that I am against double-blind play, mind you; it's the time factor, where you have to keep track not only of present but past positions, that make it difficult in this instance.

I find it a little ironic that the things that make the Exordium space battles difficult to game on a tactical level make these passages very exciting to read. Such is life. [Speaking of reading, I think now is as good a time as any to suggest to the HTML standards committee that they adopt a SUBLIMINAL tag. Thus, in case Sherwood Smith or Dave Trowbridge (or their publisher!) are reading this, I could <subliminal> more space battles </subliminal> include messages to try to <subliminal> write faster </subliminal> influence their behavior <subliminal> pay them more money </subliminal>.]

Unanswered questions [Here be SPOILERS!!]

[Note: This section in particular needs some work. Soon!]

After reading the series a second time, I find I still have many questions. Some of these are plot continuation questions, others are background filler questions, while others fall in the gray area between plot and background. I realize, of course, that some questions are best left unanswered, and trust the authors to know that better than I.

So, in no particular order, here are some questions:
  1. Where did the Adamantines come from? Are there any left in the Thousand Suns? How were they defeated in the first place?

  2. Where do the Shiiadra come from? Why do they attack human worlds? We know that the Shiiadra apparently consume human flesh, but attacking a planet seems like an awfully expensive way to get a meal.

  3. How did the High Phanist's medallion get from Arthelion to Eloatri's hand on Desrien? [Update: Dave Trowbridge has told me that the answer is simply that it's "a miracle." This works for me -- the only thing worse than not enough explanation is too much explanation. The universe needs to contain some mysteries.]

  4. Where does Barcan technology come from? There are many hints that Barcan tech is similar to Ur tech. Is this a coincidence? Is Barcan tech based on Ur tech? Or did the Barcans independently discover some of the secrets of the Ur?

  5. Whatever happened to the Ur, anyway?

  6. Where would Anaris go after the Battle of the Suneater? His father certainly didn't seem like the type who would engage in such defeatist activities as preparing boltholes or safehouses. Dol'jhar may seem like an obvious answer -- he is now the Avatar, after all -- but Anaris probably faces a power struggle at home, and I somehow doubt that Brandon will miss looking there. Of course, Anaris is most definitely not his father, so it would actually surprise me if he hadn't planned ahead for such an eventuality, if for no other reason than the possibility that he might lose the succession struggle with his father. And, as was pointed out to me, he is in command of a battlecruiser: near invulnerable, almost entirely self-sufficient, with a virtually unlimited range. Still, Brandon's out for blood, and one battlecruiser, however powerful, is no match for the entire Panarchic Navy.

  7. What will happen to the Jaspar Arkad program? Will it allow itself to be shut off, thus restoring the Ban against sentient machines? Will it turn out to have such value that Brandon won't dare shut it off? Was Brandon really responsible for its creation, or did crafty old Jaspar leave something in the Palace computer for just such an emergency? [When it first spoke to Eusabian, my thought was that it was simply a holographic message covering the fall of the Phoenix House -- "that Jaspar thought of everything."]

  8. What's happening back on Earth?

  9. What does the music of KetzenLach sound like? [By the way, Sherwood Smith tells me that "KetzenLach is pronounced KET-ZEN-LA[CH] -- the ch sound being guttural, like the German 'ach!'"]

  10. What does an Alpha-class destroyer cost? The pirates certainly seemed to have a lot of them, surplus prices or no. Why would the Navy put surplus warships up for sale anyway?

  11. What happened to the residents of Gehenna?

  12. Did the Rifters modify their skipmissiles, or did the increased power available from the Ur energy device simply allow them to "turn the knob up all the way to eleven"? On the one hand, I don't recall any mention of Ur weapons per se -- other than the Suneater, of course. On the other hand, why would the designers have overengineered the skipmissile system to such a degree? I suspect that the answer may be one of the following:

    • minor modifications were made, simply to allow the system to handle the increase power loads;

    • there is something about the mechanics of the skipmissile process (say, you just charge it longer, which for some reason would be impossible with normal spin reactors) which allowed them to take advantage of the extra power without modifying the system;

    • Panarchic power systems are a good deal more robust than an almost-21st century computer geek like me would assume; or

    • the Rifters were operating their skipmissile tubes very close to the saftety limits.

    Note that these options are by no means mutually exclusive.

    [I spoke with Dave Trowbridge about this, and he said that, basically, you only have so much time to charge a skipmissile; the more energy you can pump into it, the bigger the boom when it hits. The Ur technology allowed the Rifters to "overcharge" their skipmissiles. Of course, the tubes and other equipment weren't designed for that much power, so there is some danger.]

  13. Why aren't the Panarchic battlecruisers armed with more than one skipmissile tube? If a destroyer is a kilometer long (because that's the length of its skipmissile tube), and a battlecruiser is seven kilometers long (and with a bulkier shape), why don't battlecruisers carry two or three skipmissile tubes, giving them a higher rate of fire? After all, one-on-one battlecruiser duels are said to be long and complicated affairs, precisely because of the rate of skipmissile fire and the difficulty of overwhelming a battlecruisers teslas.

    [I thought of an answer to this question, which Dave seemed to like. Specifically, battlecruisers are not equipped with that many skipmissile tubes because they simply didn't have to be. In perhaps 95% of the historical cases, the Panarchic battlecruisers ALREADY severely outgun the opposition (e.g., Rifter destroyers, perhaps the Shiidra), and in the remain 5% (e.g., the first war against Eusabian, a generation ago), the capabilities per ship were even and superior numbers carried the day for the Arkadic forces. Under these conditions, multi-tube ships would be an extravagance that would subtract from the Navy's ability to spread its forces to cover the entire Panarchy. Of course, now that there is evidence of a need for upgunned ships...]

  14. What is the secret of Tate Kaga? Yes, yes, I know that we found out a secret, but what do we really know about his past? Am I the only one out there who suspects that there is even more than what we have learned so far? As I was rereading the series the last time, for reasons that are now unclear, I somehow got it in my head that Tate was a former Panarch -- was it Burgess II who disappeared on Desrien? -- who quietly slipped into the shadows. [Note that this explanation is not necessarily inconsistent with what we do know about him.] Incidently, it's official pronounded "TAH-teh Kah-gah."

    [Dave says I'm not the first one to point out a possible connection, but I don't think he has decided if there is one yet. He was somewhat surprised when I passed on a speculation that someone told me, that Tate Kaga is The Faceless One, repented.]

Three last comments

  1. Special thanks to the authors of Exordium, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, for both writing the series and indulging my questions. Much of the information on this page is not explicitly stated in the books, and is available due to their good graces.
  2. Sherwood Smith has made some supplementary material available on her website.
  3. Feedback on this page and the books would be most appreciated. Let me know what you think.