Interstellar Trade Mechanisms

Trade Embassy
Image from Alex Mulvey
A well defended Trade Embassy of the First Federation

Since the dawn of terragenkind trade has remained a backbone of society, even the wealthiest of autotopias still regularly trade. Physical trade between systems is exceedingly rare as most star systems enjoy an abundance of natural resources relative to their population. Digital goods are far more common and practical. The types of commodities vary but general examples include: knowledge of science, technology or other academic subject, entertainment of all forms, works of art or of cultural importance, religious beliefs and historical records. The mechanisms of trade vary substantially depending on context, nowhere are these mechanisms more diverse than in interstellar trade. Within the Nexus, where communication between the furthest edges is only a matter of days, trade is simple and most of the following mechanisms unnecessary. But for those living beyond or before the wormhole network trade between systems was and is important, difficult and risky.

There have been many different means of overcoming the challenge of trading partners separated by years. The following list covers the most historically important methods, all of these can still be found in some capacity across terragen space (though the particulars vary) beyond the easy trade within the Nexus.

Long-term negotiation

Also called Deep Transaction and the Long-haggle, this is the most simplistic and risky form of trade. Two systems negotiate a deal through back-and-forth communication limited by the speed of light, attempting to agree on digital commodities of mutual worth before transmitting at the same time. The disadvantages of this method are clear, even with thorough messages outlining a range of acceptable terms trades can take decades as the finer details are worked out. In that time local situations can change which alter the perceived value of the trade, this is particularly common where scientific data is up for sale and over the course of negotiation the potential customer system makes the discovery or develops the technology locally. In addition there is always the chance that one party will not fulfill their side of the bargain when it comes to the transaction date.

There have been several examples of bad trades that have lead to long term feuds. Of particular historical note is the Aldur Crisis. In 1621AT the denizens of the Aldur system were struggling to terraform a suitable world after arriving in the system five decades previously. A minimal ecosystem was achieved but despite this extinctions began to occur. High levels of resources were allocated towards discovering the cause and after two years it was revealed the problem lay in modelling emergent phenotypes in heavily gengineered developing ecosystems. Worse, the problem was not just with the methods used but the fundamental theory. Faced with the prospect of failure a request for a solution, along with a comprehensive sample list of digital goods, was sent to the nearby system of Pika-Omega. At three light years away the Pikans were known to have terraformed a planet successfully. Six years later a reply was received from the Pan Pikan Trade Conclave (PPTC) offering a solution in return for several hundred items on the list. The Aldurans agreed and transmitted the full files. However, another six years later the message they got back was not the solution but an account of how a previously minor Pikan consortium had set to work developing products based off the samples given, by the time the full files had been received they were worth far less and the PPTC was no longer authorised by its various members to send the solution. By this point too much time had passed to avert disaster. The terraforming failed as the planet became colonised by rampant fungal growths that poisoned the atmosphere and took centuries to clean out. This crisis sparked a feud that lasted millennia.

Digital Envoys

To significantly cut down on negotiation time digital envoys in the form of virch beings or mindstate uploads can be transmitted. These entities advertise their goods index and barter with locals on behalf of their parent organisation. Whilst this is a common form of trade amongst close systems that have a long history of trust there is always the danger of envoy subversion. Any system which requires the transmission of a mindstate opens up to the possibility of mindjacking. There have been plenty of times where less scrupulous trading partners have rootkitted a trade envoy prior to instantiation in order to force deals significantly in their favour.

More benignly digital envoys suffer from a lack of knowledge concerning their home economy. There is always a risk that the deals they negotiate are poor, either because the goods they acquire are obsolete/worthless at home or conditions at home have changed causing the home system to not honour the deal and release the full good listed in the index.

Trade Convention

The government of the First Federation saw reliable interstellar trade as a vitally important tool to maintain an interstellar polity. Without it interactions between systems would be minimal and the Federation little more than a sham organisation. To address this issue the First Fed banked on its reputation. In key systems it set up trade conventions; physical and virtual locations which guaranteed the integrity of trade envoys sent to them (these organisations were often hyperturing run). Systems could send their envoys without fear of mindjacking and have them negotiate with the representatives of dozens of other systems.

Better still as trust grew organisations sending trade envoys were confident enough to send libraries of digital goods, not just indexes. There was no fear that the library would be intercepted or the envoy would be mindjacked to hand it over for no charge. Trade sped up dramatically as envoys could enact trades the moment they were agreed, rather than waiting for their parent systems to honour the deal.

Whilst out-of-date information concerning parent systems was still a problem for trade envoys their nature of use became one of long-term investment. Having an envoy at each convention was a good way of ensuring a steady stream of digital goods for the parent system; many may be worthless, some might be of niche interest, but every now and then something would arrive from a distant envoy that would create an explosion of wealth in home economies.

Trade Embassy

For the better part of a millennium trade conventions continued to operate, but with the increasing factionalism within the First Fed and the true rise of megacorps things began to change. The cost of interstellar craft began to drop as local economies grew and true post-scarcity was achieved. This lead to organisations able to afford fleets of spacecraft, each sent to a different potential trade partner. In these destination systems these ships would operate as envoys, trading with the local system for goods to transmit home.

As with the conventions embassies provided confidence from malicious trade. Standard designs for embassies made them veritable fortresses, able to defend against all manner of physical and digital attacks. Parent organisations ensured their embassies retained a good library of tradable goods by regularly transmitting updates encrypted in the embassy's public key.

Trade embassies offered the same advantages to envoys at conventions with the additional benefits of being in whatever system the owner wished (not just those under strong Federation control) and not having to pay fees to regional governments. On their own the effect may have been minor but there is no doubt that embassies were one blow among many that brought down the Federation of Sophonts.


The collapsing price of interstellar starship construction changed the nature of trade beyond just the trade envoys. Societies, clans and clades sprung up that disregarded the notion of living in one system. Purchasing/constructing starships these groups became nomads, living aboard their ship and constantly travelling from system to system. Whilst trade has rarely been a motivator for Roamer culture it cannot be denied that their trading habits have had a dramatic effect on the interstellar state.

Arriving in a system a Roamer ship will stay for a period to experience the local cultures. Along the way aside from securing materials for maintenance and fuel Roamer's will trade digital goods and small quantities of physical, non-fungible goods with the local population. The latter phenomenon of physical trade was practically unheard of before Roamers. Transport across interstellar distances was far more expensive than the cost of transmitting the plans for the locals to construct the items themselves. But given that Roamers were due to travel anyway they tended to pick up all manner of low mass commodities. The value of these were rarely in the items capability, use or performance (these were all salespoints belonging to massless information) but in their origin. Handcrafted items in one system might be minor trinkets but after travelling tens of lightyears they became extremely sought out status items for the wealthy. One Roamer by the name of Jal-ni-Arnak attained legendary status through this form of trade. Over a period of some 950 years se visited 100 inner sphere systems and collected a small polished rock from each. The collection sold for such a staggering price Arnak was able to purchase rights to a moon already in the process of worldhousing.

Despite this trade in information goods is generally more lucrative for Roamers. Few systems develop the same, even those of roughly equal standing in terms of technology will be unequal in certain areas having funneled resources into subjects more fitting for local conditions and culture. Even if trade in scientific knowledge is poor there is always money to be made in art, entertainment and other non-fungibles. Out of fashion, old or otherwise superceeded entertainment is often available for free, yet in other cultures can be incredibly popular and bring in large profits. To this day there are still Roamer clans far beyond the Nexus, continuing a cultural tradition stretching across thousands of years.
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Development Notes
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 19 December 2015.