Wet Goods, Dry Goods
This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine website in 2007, and appeared in the March/April 2018 issue.
While drumming up passengers and freight for their next scheduled jump, the PCs are approached by a local exporter. While the exporter, his business, and his credentials are perfectly normal, the goods he’s shipping most definitely are not.
While drumming up business around the port, the PCs are contacted by Nodwengu Exporters. They will be asked to confirm their announced destination and, when that is confirmed, will be asked about available staterooms and freight space. If the players have two staterooms and ten tons of cargo space still open, Nodwengu Exporters will ask to make an appointment. It doesn’t matter whether the appointment is at the PCs’ ship or the exporter’s offices; either choice will be satisfactory to the caller.
Nodwengu Exporters’ offices are in a smart section of the port and are well furnished in an understated way. Checking Nodwengu with the port’s commercial office will reveal that the firm has been in business for decades, deals primarily in organics, has an excellent credit rating, and has no complaints or liens currently lodged against it.
Wherever the appointment is taken, the PCs will meet with Torquil dy Coe. Dy Coe is a professional, but pleasant, individual who will get down to business after the usual local courtesies; wishing the other party good health, offering light refreshments, presenting a small gifts, and so on. Nodwengu Exporters wishes to ship 20 tons of freight aboard the PCs’ ship for which they’ll pay normal freight charges. The shipment will consist of two 10-ton containers, one of which will be refrigerated. The refrigerated container will have its own power supply, but common shipping practice will have it also connected to the ship’s power distribution system for the voyage.
The firm also wishes to purchase a high passage and two middle passages for the same destination. The firm’s owner, Mayhill kwa Nodwengu, will be traveling on the high passage while dy Coe and kwa Nodwengu’s valet will travel middle passage.
If the PCs agree to accept the shipment, dy Coe will already have the necessary contracts, letters of credit, and other paperwork at hand. All the paperwork; export declarations, insurance certificates, routing slips, etc., will be in perfect order. On all of the forms, the shipment’s contents will be listed as “mixed organic compounds”. Dy Coe will describe the shipment in the same terms.
Aside from being a pleasant hour or so, completing their business with Nodwengu Exporters should take the players little effort.
The predominant religious belief of the local population assigns no great sanctity towards human remains. Once a death occurs, it is believed that the deceased’s soul or wathan moves on to a different reality. The physical body is thought of as little more than the cocoon or pupa the new transcendent being has left behind. This doesn’t mean that corpses are tossed out in the trash, however.
After death, either excarnation or cremation is usually practiced as both of those practices are seen as returning the body’s constituent elements to the world’s biosphere. Organ donation had been the norm, but tissue-specific cloning and advances in prostheses mean that such donations are no longer needed. In addition, local funerary rites do not require the presence of the deceased’s remains. Corpses are removed by municipal services to central handling facilities with all the efficiency and reverence afforded the pick-up of recyclables which, essentially, is exactly what they are.
Off-world visitors naturally express some disquiet about the locals’ seemingly callous attitude towards the bodies of the dead. In turn, the locals point to the fetish-like handling of human remains elsewhere and the financially predatory practices that necessarily follow such beliefs.
Local law and custom do not prohibit the funerary rites of other faiths. Temples, graveyards, and all the other facilities associated with several other beliefs are present and all operate freely with their own funerary practices.
In contrast to the belief of the world the players are currently visiting, a nearby world treats human remains with a great deal of reverence. The predominant religion on this world has a genealogical fixation that verges on ancestor worship. The past and future generations of a worshipper’s family are believed to be reunited in an afterlife. With such an emphasis on generational continuity, it is no wonder that family, marriage, and children are greatly prized by the religion’s adherents.
Another, lesser known, tenet of this religion holds that people can be converted to the faith after death.
The primacy of familial continuity and the belief in ‘retroactive’ conversion have led to a practice that seems odd to those not of the faith: the idea of corpse spouses. When an unmarried young adult or child dies it is commonplace for a marriage to be contracted. Another recently deceased person of the proper gender and age range is located and a ceremony performed. Then, the remains of both “participants” are interred together and local religious proprieties are met.
This “funerary marriage” process isn’t always a smooth one, however. A “spouse” of the proper gender and age range isn’t always readily available. Some families do not wish to be linked with others even in a “funerary marriage”. While families also prefer their corpses be married to another that is also recently deceased, that is more of a matter of social scruples than religious mandate.
This planet’s need for fairly fresh corpses of both genders in a narrow age range has led to an economic opportunity that many are happy to fill.
When the freight belonging to Nodwengu Exporters arrives at the PCs’ berth it will be exactly as dy Coe described: two 10 ton containers, one of which is refrigerated. Examination of the transfer company’s paperwork will reveal an anomaly, however: the shipments’ contents are listed as “mixed organic compounds—human remains”. The PCs’ reactions should be interesting.
The refrigerated container carries “wet goods”, the well-preserved more “fresh” corpses which bring higher prices as “corpse spouses”. The other container carries “dry goods”, preserved but more decayed corpses that get lower prices.
If contacted, dy Coe will seem baffled by the PCs’ reactions. The shipment does contain human corpses, but it is perfectly legal, correctly documented, and packaged in accordance with all required biological precautions. He doesn’t understand the PCs’ problem and, if they threaten to break the contract, will take all appropriate measures.
If contacted, the port’s legal department will review all the paperwork (for a small fee) and then repeat everything dy Coe has said. The shipment and its contents are entirely legal and the players are running no legal or medical risk carrying it. Because the port administration is more used to dealing with off-worlders, a friendly clerk in the legal department may inform the players about the lack of funerary customs in the planet’s primary religion.
The referee should warn the players that they face penalties if they break the contract and refuse to carry the shipment. Along with the return of the freight fees, Nodwengu will file for punitive payments with the port. The PCs’ reputations as trustworthy businessmen will also be adversely affected.
If the players decide to carry the shipment (it is only mixed organic compounds, after all), the voyage to their next stop should be uneventful. (Note: please see the complications listed below.) Mayhill kwa Nodwengu, his valet, and dy Coe will all board at the required time. All will be model passengers throughout the voyage. Kwa Nodwengu, a fairly nondescript man in his sixties, will spend most of his time in his cabin. His valet will cheerfully assist the players in not only meeting kwa Nodwengu’s needs but with the other passengers also. Dy Coe will have some business with him that will take up some of his day; he’ll be a charming passenger in his free time however.
One request the Nodwengu personnel will make is regular reports concerning the refrigerated container’s temperature and humidity. Such monitoring is standard with any such containers so providing the information will be trivial for the players.
After the ship arrives at its next destination, the odd freight will be off-loaded without any problem. When disembarking, Dy Coe will thank the PCs and ask that they remember his firm the next time they are in the region. Nodwengu Exporters deals with many worlds in the region, handles many kinds of goods, and has a constant need for shippers.
Referees can further complicate the adventure with the options listed below:
- After Nodwengu Exporters’ shipment has been loaded, the port police will contact the players. The port has been contacted by local authorities and has decided to honor their request. It seems the shipment mistakenly contains a body whose family is not of the local majority faith and they want it back. The port police and medical personnel will be arriving soon to identify and remove the body. Dy Coe will contact the players either immediately after the police or at the same time. He will inform them that he has documentation that will allow the rapid identification of the body in question. While potentially distasteful, the process will be finished without incident and Nodwengu Exporters will pay any costs the players incur.
- As in #1 above but the family in question does not make their request through the local legal system. They may contact the PCs directly or attempt a break-in to find the body they want. If the family contacts the PCs first, they may contact dy Coe to forward their request. Dy Coe will arrange to identify and remove the remains in question, and also pay any cost the PCs incur.
- A slow climb in temperature inside the refrigerated container has kwa Nodwengu and dy Coe concerned. They’ll request that the PCs investigate and correct the problem. The reason for and solution to the problem is up to the referee. The Nodwengu personnel will ask for more frequent updates after this and will show concern over changes within the container’s normal operating range.
- As in #3, but refrigeration for the container fails for some reason. The Nodwengu personnel will request immediate repairs naturally. The cause of the failure, how it can be fixed, and how long the container’s internal environment can be maintained without refrigeration are all up to the referee. If the container’s contents “spoil”, but the PCs made every effort to prevent that, kwa Nodwengu will honor the contract despite a clause saying he needn’t do so.
- Another passenger aboard will learn of the contents of the Nodwengu shipment and take extreme exception to those contents. That passenger’s behavior towards and interactions with the Nodwengu personnel will worsen to the point where physical violence may or does occur. The PCs will be forced to take some action to preserve the peace among the passengers.
- During unloading at the destination system, an extremely forceful woman with two bodyguards will walk up the ship’s open cargo ramp and begin looking for the Nodwengu shipment. A death occurred in her family a few days ago and, when negotiating for a “corpse spouse” with a local marriage broker, she was told there were currently no “high quality wet goods” available. She next learned of the arriving Nodwengu shipment and is determined to acquire the spouse her dead relative needs. The fact that all of Nodwengu’s “wet goods” are spoken for is of no consequence to this woman. Used to getting her way in all things, she intends to select the goods she wants, pay the players what she feels is a fair price, and be on her way. How the players can stop her, whether they call for assistance from the port police or Nodwengu personnel, and just how much local political influence the woman has are all left up to the referee.
I stole the idea for this adventure from a recent issue of The Economist. You can’t beat the real world for this kind of stuff. Reality is always infinitely weirder than even I can imagine.
Red China’s “One Child” policy has the best of intentions, but we all know just which road is paved with those. Naturally, there have been many unintended, and completely nasty, consequences of that policy. The best known has been a hugely expanded slave trade which involves women primarily from Southeast Asia. Those unfortunates are lured to China by the promise of jobs, kidnapped locally, or simply purchased outright to end up as brides for Chinese men. Another lesser known, but equally appalling, consequence has been an explosion in the trafficking of dead women.
While dying single is unthinkable for much of the Chinese population, being male and dying single is considered especially heinous. Historically, parents took steps to ensure their dead sons didn’t go gently into that good night without the comforts of a ‘bride’. Matchmakers, while also handling marriages for those still breathing, didn’t mind finding dead brides for dead grooms either. Depending on how much money was available, your dead son could be married to ‘wet goods’ or ‘dry goods’—with the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ labels referring to just how long the ‘goods’ had been dead. After the marriage ceremony, the happy couple would be interred together to begin their eternal dirt nap honeymoon.
Currently, the lack of women in China, coupled with a rapidly rising industrial death rate for men and relative prosperity, has brought inflation—and much worse—to the corpse bride market. With marriage brokers as the middlemen, the usual suppliers like mortuaries, funeral homes, and body snatchers have been getting as much as 4,000 to 5,300 USD for a, to quote The Economist, “top quality piece of wet merchandise”. Prices have been so good that murderers are getting into the act because Adam Smith’s hidden hand works in all markets.
Seeing that live brides are already being ‘imported’ into China, I figure it’s only a matter of time before dead brides get imported too; hence this adventure.
The idea of ‘retroactive’ conversion to a religious faith is another stolen idea. It’s part of the tenets of the Mormon faith. One reason why they emphasize genealogical research is that they routinely ‘baptize’ those who are long dead into their faith. This then allows a non-Mormon ancestor into the Mormon afterlife. In fact, until repeatedly asked by Israel to desist, Mormon congregations were regularly ‘baptizing’ the names of Holocaust victims. Like I said, you can’t make this stuff up.