In my last post, I skimmed through some of the deep history behind the story in Ghosts of Innocence. This time I'm talking about some of the physical landscape at the time of the story.
Mine is bigger than yours
When comparing one interstellar empire with another, census officials and financial lizards talk about things like populations, manufacturing capacity, and gross domestic product. However, most ordinary emperors just count how many inhabited systems they own.
In the early days of interstellar expansion, people counted inhabited worlds, meaning those where there was an established human presence.
This measure gave rise to problems and ambiguities. Alongside the primary world, do you count all the moons with permanent bases? Some of them were nothing more than observation posts manned by a handful of staff, clearly not worth counting, but others were larger than some planetary colonies. What about those planets with no surface populations, but with a thriving flock of orbiting bases? What about the large mining populations spread thinly through an ore-rich asteroid belt? Exactly what constitutes a "world" was becoming a nightmare of arbitrary and meaningless definitions.
And you thought Pluto had it rough!
An inhabited system is defined simply as a star system containing a self-supporting permanent population. This measure makes no mention of how the population is distributed or housed, so avoids many of the problems of earlier definitions. The "self-supporting" qualification has some more specific definitions attached, but essentially ensures that the system has enough critical mass of population and resources to be significant in political terms.
Deep space and politics...
In Shayla's time, an official census recorded 523 inhabited systems.
These were spread unevenly through a disc of space roughly two thousand light years across and five hundred light years thick. This is a tiny fraction of the galaxy, which is a hundred thousand light years across.
To give some perspective on what this means for travelers, the fastest ship would take about two months to cross from one border of human space to the other.
Of course, inhabited systems account for only a tiny fraction of stars in this region of space. The common convention, other than for navigational charts, is for maps to show only inhabited systems and to ignore the vast numbers of stars in between.
Just over half of these systems were under the control of six Grand Families, either directly ruled, or through long-standing allegiances. The Family Skamensis was the strongest with 83 systems. The Family dom Calvino were the paupers at the table with a puny 27.
The remaining systems were independent, or owed only transient allegiance.
With these six power-hungry sharks in the pool, independence was difficult and precarious. Some worlds were strong enough, either individually or by banding together, to keep the Grand Families at bay. At the other extreme, many "outworlds" on the periphery of civilization were too small and remote to be worth subduing.
A privileged few, the Freeworlds, maintained their neutrality by treaty. Freeworlds usually had a dedicated purpose, or charter, and established themselves as highly specialized centers of excellence for academics, artists, or artisans.
The Families were prepared to honor the Freeworlds' independent status in return for the strictly impartial value that these worlds brought to all of humanity.
It is no coincidence that Freeworlds also typically lacked natural resources worth fighting over.