Finding Your Way Around the Starport
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue.
Live Cargo Storage
This is where live animal cargoes are kept awaiting transport. Accommodations can range from a simple barred pen to thousands of environmentally controlled and landscaped booths that can be individually tailored to many different species of animal. Backwater worlds and agricultural planets often have surprisingly elaborate facilities, as they see much more traffic in livestock than do other ports. On such worlds, this area is also frequently converted into a makeshift “hotel” for alien visitors with special atmospheric needs that could not be hoped to be met elsewhere.
Again, the dockworkers in this area are likely to be well-trained in their specialty, but some ports actually require a ship’s crew to supervise or handle their animal freight themselves until it is dispatched. “There’s the pen, have fun”.
Despite all efforts, the live cargo area tends to be pretty insanitary except for the freezer berths. There are routine health checks and sweeps with disinfectant and detergents, but even the best veterinarians cannot keep up with the number of parasites, symbiotes and illnesses that extra-planetary livestock may carry, not to mention being able to spot abnormal behaviour or poor health in little-known species. Higher-developed worlds usually require a complete manual on the species’ requirements, common illnesses and treatments to be provided before accommodation is granted. Epidemics and quarantines are common, and traders in livestock may dock at the port only to find their animals being barred from the storage area for medical reasons even if pens were booked in advance.
Non-Imperial ports and pirate havens may see a different kind of “live cargo”: slaves. Pens for enslaved sophonts are basically the same as animal pens, as are accommodations for near-slave migrant workers. The latter may also be found in “respectable” ports: despite all efforts of the Imperium, virtual slavery, bare-subsistence working contracts and indenture are still common on many worlds, and there are planets where the main export to other star systems is unskilled labourers. Not all of them leave the planet of their own free will.
Finally, live cargo storage is often converted into refugee accommodation (or a jail) in cases of natural disaster or political upheaval, where the starport inevitably becomes the staging center for humanitarian efforts. While this may sound cruel, the live cargo area is the only part of the starport able to provide adequate life support for large numbers of sophonts that cannot be accommodated elsewhere, and its compartmented layout and veterinarian facilities make it easy to police and to enforce quarantine measures.
- The travellers are tasked with escorting an alien of a newly contacted species to a rendezvous with its parents who currently live in a live cargo storage habitat at the port. Suddenly there is a loud explosion, and the youngster bolts. The fright has reduced xir to a primal flight-or-fight stage, and xe runs around the live cargo area hiding in the various pens. The travellers have to find and soothe xir – a task made difficult by the fact that the kid can alter its shape somewhat and xir skin can mimic the colour and texture of the animals. After they have captured xir, they may need to investigate the cause of the explosion – does someone want the aliens dead?
- The travellers have delivered their cargo of cold-berthed livestock, to be thawed out and revived in the live cargo storage area. Unfortunately, someone used the animals’ stomachs to smuggle something else: packets of psi-drugs. A Zhodani agent extracts the stuff and mind-controls the veterinarian so she forgets about the incident. The next day, as the travellers sign the routine paperwork, the vet collapses with anaphylactic shock. (One of the packets was torn, and she has a rare allergy against one of the psi-drug’s component chemicals.) If the travellers put two and two together, they can use her allergic reaction to “sniff out” where the drugs are stashed now.
- As 2), but the items smuggled inside of the animals are alien parasites. When attached to a human and linked to xir bloodstream, they rejuvenate the host’s cells, effectively reversing aging. The long-term side-effects on the neurological system are unrest and megalomania, terminating in full-blown psychosis and, ultimately, death. The smuggled specimens are for a certain crime lord of the travellers’ acquaintance (maybe even a former patron). The trail peters out for now – but when the travellers return to the star system, they find the underworld in a state of full-blown war. The crime lord has gone mad with the juices of the parasite on his shoulder. Xir syndicate is now waging war on all levels against other criminal clans, the police, and the planet’s feeble government – economic terror, starvation, hacking, assassination and all-out urban warfare.
- The starport’s live cargo storage has a huge number of domes where many different environments are simulated to house different species of livestock, from continuous slightly-acidic downpour to arid stone landscapes heated to 95° C from below. The travellers are following a culprit, who kills a staff member and uses the victim’s access card and environmental suit to flee through the maze of domes and connecting corridors. The travellers have to follow xir, trying to cut off xir lanes of escape, wading through a new and unexpected kind of environment at every turn.
- When the travellers’ livestock cargo is thawed out, the last mobile low berth unit holds not an animal, but an undernourished sophont who bears signs of physical abuse. Xe worked in the abattoir of a concentation camp where a persecuted minority is interned on the planet where the travellers loaded the cargo, and managed to escape by hiding with the export livestock.
- Someone (an eco-terrorist group? a team of spacers trying to draw attention away from a heist?) opened the electronic locks on the pens in the live cargo storage section. Livestock are stampeding down the starport aisles, and the travellers are in the way. Even if they can avoid the crush, they will have their hands full with animals wandering aimlessly through the starport’s corridors. (Even after this adventure has been played out, smaller specimens crop up in random places for the next few months or so, as a running gag.)
- As 6), but the released animals were originally quarantined with a disease that may be transmissible to humans. Nearly the whole starport has to be quarantined, and no one may leave the area xe is currently in. Breaking out the sleeping bags in the mall is no fun, but it’s even worse if you’re currently in the Vargr slums where you only just offended the local crimelord, and are prevented from leaving by suited-up armed Marines.
- The travellers have been captured and are put in a cattle pen pending their auction as slaves. They have to convince the other unfortunate inmates to help foment a slave revolt. The adventure may either take place outside the Imperium (in the Glorious Empire of the Trojan Reach, Humans might even be sold as livestock for consumption!), or the slave market is located in an obscure corner of the legitimate live cargo storage as an illegal side project of the local underworld and several bribed officials.
- Someone hires the travellers to break into the live cargo storage section and poison a herd of grazers. Their employer a) wants to drive the price up, and keep the competition from flooding the market with their animals, b) wants xir own herd to die so xe can claim insurance and sue the Port Authority for xir loss, or c) needs to get rid of xir surplus before new legislation forces xir to relocate the animals offworld (which would cost xir heavily in freight fees and tariffs).
- A minor Aslan noble gourmand from the Glorious Empire visits the port, which has a well-deserved reputation for being the hub of quality livestock in the sector. The travellers are hired to show him and his haughty entourage around the live cargo storage area. Not only are the Aslan very snobbish, they also regard humans as a combination of food and slaves. The cargo workers take offense, and unless the travellers can contrive a real diplomatic miracle, a bloody brawl is going to take place, with them in the middle.
- A client has paid the travellers to get her cousin out of the “cattle pens” where the indentured workers (virtual slaves) are kept waiting for their shipment to a developing industrial world. The poor girl ran afoul of a loan shark and was forced to sign an indenture contract. The travellers will have to grease a few palms and pose as “indies” to infiltrate the pens. Itīs a rough place; most of the “indies” are desperate and miserable, and the worst elements have already coalesced into gangs that make life near unbearable for the others.
- As 11), but the shipment date is moved forward while the travellers are undercover; they and their charge are bundled into ships, cold-berthed or crammed into storage bays, and shipped to the planet. Now they have to escape the horrible working conditions and get off the planet with their employer’s cousin. It may help that the indentured workers are usually simple peasants from backwater worlds, and none of the straw bosses expect any of their “indies” to have Marine training or computer hacking skills.
- A natural disaster or civil war on the planet has resulted in the live cargo storage area filling with tens of thousands of refugees. The Port Authority tries to get supplies and medical aid to the sophonts there, but it is an uphill battle. Meanwhile, the Port Security and Marines have to enforce a curfew. The travellers are asked by a client to enter the storage area and find a certain person. Xe may be a relative that got lost during the evacuation, a wounded agent carrying important information, a scientist whose expertise is desperately needed, or an enemy spy.
- As 13), but the refugees in the makeshift camp are from different factions who are all at each other’s throats. The Marines keep the peace – barely – but a single spark will cause the camp to explode into violence. The travellers are asked to infiltrate the camp and identify and extract the leaders of each faction, so the Port Authority and the local Imperial noble can put them all together at the negotiations table without interference from their fanatical supporters.
- The son of a wealthy philantropic family has come to the port to purchase good breeding stock for a farming cooperative his family wants to co-found. Unfortunately, the cooperative elder who was supposed to advise him fell ill and currently is in stasis in a hospital. The young man is fairly good with business, but a bit naive. He also knows next to nothing about livestock animals and couldnīt tell a young breeding bull from a decrepit old cow. He wants to hire the travellers to advise him and spot if someone wants to ak advantage of his naivety. Unfortunately, all the livestock brokers already have plans to palm their sick, infertile or otherwise substandard animals off on him.
Sample Denizens of the Live Cargo Storage Area
Yevgenia Wong 594B99
Livestock Broker/Human Female
Broker-4, Admin-0, Advocate-1, Computer-1, Animal Husbandry-1 Persuade-2, Intimidation-3, Streetwise-3, Melee/blade-0, Melee/brawling-0, Gun Combat/slug-0
Yevgenia Wong is an impeccably-clad woman with strong Asiatic features and a face completely devoid of expression. Her graying hair is drawn back into a tight queue, and she has a bionic memory implant on her left temple. Usually accompanied by two large and burly “secretaries”, she has a habit of appearing unexpectedly wherever deals concerning livestock take place.
A calm, intense, hard-nosed negotiator, Wong does not take no for an answer. She works for influential clients, often well-connected in the local underworld, and has carte blanche to strike or cancel deals. She is not above leaning on clients or competitors with her criminal backing, or contriving “accidents” for unwelcome competitors’ cargoes. Most of the other brokers at the port are terrified of her and will usually back out of a deal at the mere rumour of her disapproval. She may have her fingers in about any illicit dealings the travellers find themselves in, and she considers the live cargo storage area her personal kingdom.
Nirgal Vevsut Arbin 585A98
Port Authority Veterinarian/Human nonbinary
Xenoveterinarian-2, Veterinarian-3, Drive/wheeled-0, Computer-1, Medic-0, Animal Husbandry-2, Science/Biology-1, Science/Xenobiology-1, Art/music-2
Nirgal Arbin, a small dark-haired genderfluid person in xir early fifties, works as a veterinarian in the live cargo storage section. Xir job is to certify newly arrived livestock, take and analyze samples for known diseases. Xe is soft-spoken, but full of authority where xir field of expertise is touched. A deeply caring person, Nirgal is very sad when xe has to order livestock culled, often setting the injection xirself and comforting the animal until it dies. When the emotional pressure of xir work becomes too much, xe seeks refuge in xir flute and the works of xir homeworld’s classical master composers.
Keera Alea Bodkine 95C543
Live Cargo Handler/Human Female
Animal Husbandry-4, Biology-0, Jack-of-all-trades-1, Gambling-1, Streetwise-1, Drive/loading exoskeleton-2, Melee/brawling-2, Melee/blade-1
Called “Kibbo” by her co-workers, Bodkine is a heavyset woman with a round face and mud-brown hair worn in an untidy spiral braid on the back of her head. She’s not very good with people, but has a hand for animals. She’s often the person who is called to deal with difficult and ornery animals, and is reputed to have at one time calmed a brace of wild Au’a bulls enough to take an injection without pulping the veterinarian. Nirgal Arbin trusts her to keep an eye on certain pens, and she often works long hours to see that everything is shipshape. Her immense stamina helps a lot in her job.
As patient as she can be with animals, “Kibbo” has a short temper when it comes to humans, and is awkward in a crowd. She’s been arrested a few times for brawling, and bailed out by Nirgal.
Vreakh’laosyaoila (“Lao”) A79542
Aslan male rukta (Outcast), Live Cargo Handler
Animal Husbandry-3, Melee/dewclaw-4, Gambling-2, Tolerance-3, Drive/loading exoskeleton-2, Streetwise-2, Vacc suit-0, Zero-gee-0
“Lao” is a rough-looking, sinewy Aslan with a dark stripe down his forehead and nose. His fur is gray and patchy, and his shaggy mane has been cut short on one side. Due to his (undeserved) reputation as a vicious and short-tempered brawler, most other cargo handlers give him a wide berth.
Lao always hated being an outcast, which is why he left Aslan space and moved to the Imperium. Working odd jobs, he drifted from port to port. He’s always boiling with rage inside (which even a non-psionic person can pick up easily enough), but it is directed at Aslan society as a whole rather than the humans he works with. The sight of other Aslan lets his mane bristle with hardly-suppressed fury, and he will go out of his way to pick a fight with them.
Animals are also terrified of Lao because of his predatory scent, which is why he is employed with either the frozen-berthed livestock or with placid kinds of animals that don’t get too skittish when he comes near. He does not exactly like his job, but it’s better than most others he’s worked, so he doesn’t mind too much. The humans are nice, they are very polite to give him enough room to be alone with his thoughts. “Kibbo”, in particular, seems to be a good person. She taught him the job and is the closest thing to a friend that Lao has.
Kozak Raymavik 676877
Cold Berth Technician/Human male
Engineer-3, Computer-1, Science/Biology-1, Veterinarian-1, Science/physics-1, Carouse-1, Drive/Wheeled-1
Raymavik is a young dark-haired man who, despite being of average size and height, always looks a bit too small for the clothes he wears. His usual attire is the gray uniform coverall of the starport’s Technical Service, covered with zipper pockets and attachments for tools.
The young engineer checks the portable low berth units of animals that arrive in a frozen state, and supervises the thawing process. In the case of rare, protected or valuable animals, he will be assisted by a veterinarian and/or a biologist to ensure that the animal survives the process. (With ordinary livestock, a certain rate of deaths is considered acceptable and already figured into the profit margin calculations.)
Although he is sociable enough, Raymavik is still kind of an outsider in the live cargo storage area. To the live cargo handlers, he comes across as a condescending know-it-all (which is far from what he intends), while some of the veterinarians only see him as a glorified plumber. He has resigned himself to his outsider state and instead tries to find friends with the visiting trader crews.
Currently single, he would very much like to find a girlfriend, but is somewhat intimidated by the tough spacer women. If encouraged, he may shyly try his hand at some flirting.