- The Third Imperium operates a starport on almost everyone of its roughly 11,000 member worlds, as well as many client states and even a few hostile worlds.
- These ports anchor the web of trade that provides both the reason for the Imperium and the means by which it exists.
As vital as that function is, starports play another role of arguably equal importance. Starports are where the Imperium and each of its self-governing worlds collide and collude. They usually represent the sole Imperial outpost on a world - and the world's sole lifeline to the stars. Given their critical function for both governments, Imperial starports transcend their mundane role as transit station. In most citizens' eyes, they stand as the symbol of the Imperial relationship. The details of this symbolism vary in accordance with the nature of each world's view of the Imperium.
Imperial starports exist to provide fair and equitable support of interstellar trade. This they do, with an astonishing degree of uniformity across the parsecs. At the same time, the intense Imperial, local government, and public focus on each port transforms it into a unique culture - a place unlike any other on the world, perhaps unlike any other in all of the Imperium. A star traveller can expect to find a fixed set of ship services at a fixed set of prices at a given Imperial starport. In every other venue - atmosphere, attitudes, attractions - he should expect the unexpected. Beyond the landing pads and control towers, no two starports are alike.
Imperial Starport Authority
The Imperium uses a number of agencies to indirectly govern its vast reaches.
- None of these - not even the Imperial Navy in all its dreadnought glory - can claim greater importance than the Imperial Starport Authority.
- The SPA manages all Imperial public starports, which is to say, the port facilities for well over 97% of trade and travel in Imperial space.
- The job requires equal genius in administration, diplomacy, and crisis response.
Authority & Influence
On paper, the SPA - as represented by each port's director - merely manages the starport. The SPA port, especially the shipyard, often hosts permanent scout or naval operations, but these remain under scout or naval control. (The entire port often falls under naval control during a crisis.) The port usually houses Imperial diplomatic offices, but the port personnel have no policymaking duties.
In practice, each port's director wields enormous influence on local relations. A saying goes that the navy can always point a gun to get what it wants, the scouts monopolize the euphoria of first contact then move along, the diplomats hammer out definitions of the ideal. . . but it's the SPA personnel that roll up their sleeves and make Imperial-member world relations work on a daily basis. However much truth underlies that statement, rare is the admiral, sector scout leader, or ambassador who does not consult with the local port director on matters of importance.
All Imperial starports are Imperial property, regardless of the allegiance of the system they occupy. This concept is known as extraterritoriality (usually shortened to extrality, or just XT). Within the port's boundaries - referred to as the XT line - local law and political authority are not in force.
Over 97% of the starports within the Imperium and over 40% of those found on nearby non-member worlds are Imperial-registered ports. The Starport Authority grades all of its facilities as falling into one of five classes. (For convenience, the Travellers' Aid Society applies the same grading to non-SPA starports when describing their service levels.)
In its first few years, with authority derived from Warrant of Restoration Article VII, the Third Imperium almost solely built exploratory and military bases, under the command of the Imperial Scout Service or Imperial Navy respectively. The need for commercial ports was recognized from the beginning; it did not take long to realize that the Imperium would have to take on this responsibility for itself to ensure their quality. The scouts' Bases Division established a Civilian Starports Office to establish standards for taking over existing ports, formalize procedures for building new ones, and prioritize new-construction and upgrade needs.
In 422, after the completion of the First Survey, a decree of Emperor Martin III separated this office from the Scouts and established it as the Imperial Starport Authority. It is part of the Imperial Ministry of Commerce, though its chief executive answers directly to the Emperor.
It's was preceded by the Sylean Starport Authority, Terran Port Authority of Man, and the Vilani Gadthusaga Rigorulanii among others. Smaller affiliated starport regulators exist throughout Charted Space, generally in addition to the SPA.
Alliances & Auxiliary Service
A side effect of the SPA's long association with the Imperial Scout Service is that scouts often consider the SPA an "auxiliary" of IISS. Some SPA personnel resent this (some laugh it off as just another example of scouts' outlandish chutzpah), but it means that scouts are willing to bend their already flexible rules to assist the SPA. Scouts who become unfit for active service through age or injury sometimes move to a job with the SPA; this is considered less of a "step down" than the private sector. Such ex-scouts are given the benefit of their service seniority on application with the SPA.
Star Ports & Imperial Policy
The SPA facilitates interstellar trade by reducing its costs nearly to the point of subsidizing it, and by enforcing Imperial policy on fair trade and ship safety. This careful balance of carrot and stick means that no alternative starship service has been able to compete with the SPA, though a few worlds and megacorporations still try.
The Imperium levies no routine tariffs on star trade, though it reserves the right.
Occasionally a crisis will result in a temporary tax, though more often within a given subsector, sector, or domain than Imperium-wide. The SPA does collect all local tariffs from interstellar commerce prior to handing them over to the host government or not handing them over. A primary Imperial intrusion into local policy is that all worlds hosting an Imperial starport must practice fair trade. It formally prohibits favoritism in planetary tariffs and trade practices in regard to goods shipped via Imperial star ports. The Imperium has not yet claimed the authority to prohibit these practices altogether, the primary reason that a few local or corporate-owned ports still exist.
Worlds cannot interfere at all with goods transshipping (ie.. just passing through) their Imperial starport. In an important extension of extrality, the goods never legally leave Imperial territory.
Host planets can impose uniform tariffs on goods destined for their world, and most do, ranging from 0% to more than 200% of market value. The SPA monitors these tariffs, and takes an aggressive stance in adjudicating them. A world with an Imperial starport will be wasting its time in attempting to impose a special tariff on a product for which one of its rivals is a leading exporter - no matter how legitimate the grounds for the tariff. The appearance of Imperial fairness usually outweighs all other considerations.
This longstanding devotion to fair trade helped to sell thousands of worlds on the SPA system, and through it, on the Imperium itself. Despite any complaining, it still does. Many steadfast member worlds would not display nearly as much devotion without the immense, tangible benefits of hosting an Imperial starport. (This rarely protects the starport from being the target of displeasure at other Imperial policies, though.)
Among the other policies of the SPA for promoting trade and safety, they maintain a library of fee free ship designs. Starship Engineering Package from this library are given to shipyards and maintenance facilities based on capacity, technical capability, and local need. These tried and true designs make for safer, more easily maintained ships in the public sphere and make the backbone of local design variants. Some of these designs date back to the First Imperium.
Therefore, a starport provides the Imperium a method by which to offer consistent commercial-starship service, regulate star-travel for safety, set trade policy, monitor local compliance with said policy, and levy taxes. Weighed against these many advantages are the extremely high cost of the port and its personnel.