Squawkers

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Most heroes carry some sort of squawker - a wireless radio, the sort that drives communication across the Known Worlds. This sometimes gives the impression that characters out in the wild are 'linked in' to society - but what exactly is a squawker? How do they work?

Broadly, all squawkers are multi-channel radios that broadcast generally, far closer to modern walkie-talkies than to cell phones. There is no 'squawker network' - while some squawker transmissions are encrypted, most places in the Known Worlds do not have a communications infrastructure where calls go from a squawker to a tower, along a network and then from a tower to a destination squawker. Indeed, squawkers are not private at all - anyone within the range of a squawker that is tuned to the appropriate channel can pick up transmissions, though if those transmissions are encrypted they may not be able to understand them. Most squawker transmissions are not encrypted, however, as the lack of infrastructure means that the regular updating of keys and codes required for effective encryption is difficult.

The Engineers and other squawker manufacturers claim that their devices have a range of about 25 km - roughly 15 miles - but soldiers and other 'in the field' users know that this is the range in an open field under clear skies with nothing electronic at all around. In practical situations, the range is much less than that, with about ten miles the maximum practical range and the range in hilly or forested country far, far less. What this means for long-term communications is that messages are passed by a game of 'telephone' - a person in the field with a squawker raises someone within 10 miles with a squawker to pass a message along, who passes it along again and so on until the message gets to a major settlement that possesses a Long-Range Communications Device (LRCD) that can relay the message up to an orbiting starship, space station or (on some worlds) satellite.

All towns and even largish villages have at least a token military presence with a squawker, and small cities have a military base with an LRCD. Armies on the move and most starships are also equipped with LRCDs, and there are expensive backpack-portable units available. Still, this means that getting a message from the wilderness to civilization can be difficult and may involve either a message being passed along through several hands - with the attendant possibility of mistakes - or a connection being patched through a number of relays. (Some villages can patch an incoming call directly into an outgoing call if they have a communications center, though if their communications consist of a grizzled trooper with a squawker this won't be possible.) Politics can play a large role in message transmission; if the nearest village belongs to a lord or faction that doesn't much like the caller, getting a message through may be much more difficult. Circumstances can be just as much of an impediment; if the next town over is having a wedding or is just asleep, passing along a message may also be hard.

Of course, the biggest problems come if the transmitter is in enemy territory of just more than a dozen miles outside of civilized life - in those situations, finding a friendly voice on the wire is unlikely, and enemies may be able to triangulate your position by comparing notes on the source of a transmission.