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General Layout, the Civilian Dock, and the Cargo Dock

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue.


Travellers tend to spend a lot of their time at the starport. Their ship will be docked in one of the port’s berths. Refuelling and maintenance take place here, as well as the trade that keeps the bills paid and the ship running. Patrons looking for a team of travellers-for-hire will frequent the portside bars, ship captains meet and swap news in the various tea houses, messages for their friends and contacts will be stored at the port’s post office. Crewmen looking for work will hang around at the trade dock to try and talk to any captain who might be able to offer them a job. Passengers looking for passage will be listed in the port’s system, where they can be contacted by ships going in their direction.

Many of these activities are routine and can be handled with a minimum of preparation. “I’m going to visit the known spacer hangouts to go looking for someone who might have a job for us.” A general knowledge of the starport’s layout helps, but a detailed map isn’t necessary in most cases.

There are situations, however, where it becomes important for the Referee and players to know just what part of the starport is located where:

The travellers are in the Brokerage section and on the run from the starport police. What route should they take to their ship’s berth? Do they get there in time before a patrol outflanks them and bars their way?

Insurgents have seized part of the starport. Can the existing troops be shifted in time to cut them off from the vital locations? Fuel storage, life support or the power plant are all vulnerable targets. Are the travellers caught between the terrorists and the starport’s Marines, or can they get clear before the excrement hits the ventilation?

The travellers are hiding a known dissident/criminal/celebrity travelling incognito. They need to get xir to a certain section of the port. Which route do they need to take if they want to avoid either crowded areas or checkpoints and patrols as much as possible?

The diagram shows the different sections of a typical starport and how they connect. Small circles denote checkpoints where travellers may be held up, apprehended, or searched, such as at the Navy Yard’s entrance.

Sizes and appointments differ from port to port. In a given starport, certain areas may be huge, especially in the case of higher-level ports, or they may be so small and primitive as to be nearly nonexistent. Berths may be luxuriously-appointed hangars with their own atmospheric control and gravitic handling, or they may be a simple pit in the ground. There may be just a single berth or landing field for the occasional visiting scoutship, or there may be rows upon rows of tiered shipping docks for a mind-boggling volume of traffic. The shipyard could be a huge facility stretching over hundreds of square kilometers, or a simple shack with a few tools and a bit of lifting equipment. A “viceregal palace” may actually look nothing like a palace in a backwater system. I would like to refer you to Jeff Zeitlin’s “Extending the UWP: Starports” and the Universal Extended Starport Profile (Freelance Traveller #41, May 2013), for an overview of starport sections and their respective size, and Rob Eaglestone’s excellent “The Eaglestone Trade Index”, (Freelance Traveller #51, March 2014), for an estimate of a star system’s traffic density. Both have been of invaluable help in the writing of this series.

Note that the diagram contains all areas that can possibly be expected at a standard spaceport or starport. Not all of these areas will be present at all starports. A Class-E is unlikely to have a shipyard or a viceregal palace; even the larger ports will often lack a Navy or Scout Service base; lawless systems may not even provide customs services; and so forth. In this case, the Referee simply needs to cross out those areas and checkpoints that are not present at the port in question. The connection lines remain.

Even where all the sections are present in a system, they may still be distributed between the lowport and the orbital port. If there is a shipyard, it may be located dirtside or in orbit, or both components may have their own shipbuilding facilities. The viceregal palace may be perched on an outcrop overlooking the downport or jut out of the highport’s upper levels (or the system’s reigning noble may well have palaces in both ports, with a separate shuttle service or space elevator between the two). If the system has an orbital port, the Referee must use two separate diagrams for the highport and the downport, and cross out those areas on either that are not present at the respective component.

Different Layouts

Only a very few starports still conform to their original blueprints.

When a port is first built, it is tailored to the expected amount of trade, and like any rough estimate, this may or may not be correct. Political upheaval, failed subsidy programmes, shifts in trade routes, an industrial revolution on the planet or the discovery of new resources in-system may throw the projections of the best analysts out of kilter.

Every economic change reflects in the starport’s layout, which is modified to fit the new situation. A starport suddenly finding itself the hub of livestock trade in the subsector may have to convert part of its cargo storage or even recreation areas into huge cattle pens. An influx of tourists may result in cheap hotels being built in storehouses, or residential areas being transformed into tourist traps. Sometimes, the modifications are cosmetic; often they are extensive and may border on the grotesque. When talking about non-standard ports, travellers commonly use the terms “shrunk” and “mushroom”:

A “shrunk” or “dried-up” starport was founded on high expectations that failed to materialise. At some point of its operational life, it was decided that the traffic coming through could be managed with a fraction of the staff and facilities. There are now huge mothballed areas that are never used. On the ground, those are dilapidated empty warehouses, buildings and towers, bare blast pits, rooms full of deactivated computer banks, robots, tools and vehicles. At the highport, those areas are simply sealed off. There may still be stale atmosphere in them (possibly toxic since it likely hasn’t been changed for quite a while), but more often than not, the atmosphere is vented into space to help preserve the equipment, and the facilities are exposed to vacuum. Power will be down, shutters closed, and the rooms in darkness.

Being short on personnel, shrunk starports don’t usually patrol those areas. The janitorial service or night watch may check on them irregularly, but most of the time they are left alone. This makes the shrinkage areas (perhaps referred to as “decommissioned” or “abandoned”) ideal haunts for criminals. Dissidents and mobsters meet their contacts in the darkened air ducts. Smugglers bribe the janitors to hide contraband in the derelict bays. Fugitives from the law may hole up here with a vacc suit or pressure tent and a few bottles of oxygen to wait out a raid. There have even been cases of the maintenance personnel diverting power and atmosphere to grow illegal herbal drugs in the abandoned berths, or entire black markets or gambling rackets located in a pressurised bubble in an abandoned storage area.

Where the Port Authority is corrupt, some of the “officially” decommissioned areas may even still be working—in an unofficial role, serving pirate ships and raiders safely out of view from Imperial inspectors.

“Dried-up” starports are interesting in that they may have an orbital component even if their rating is low. Often, the Imperium provides subsidies to have at least marginal activity there, in order to preserve the highport for a possible later resurgence of trade. This financial aid is hardly enough in most cases, and the personnel of those ports are usually quite adept at jury-rigging and cannibalising outdated equipment to keep things ticking.

The Navy also keeps tabs on “dried-up” starports, both inside and out of Imperial space. There are quite a few ports that are listed as being able to serve only ships up to a certain displacement, or a certain volume of traffic, but might be able to handle much larger ships or fleets if the mothballed areas were reactivated. Especially the Navy’s huge capital ships are dependent on large ports. If major military action is expected along the border, the Marine and Naval logistics corps may swoop in, get the surplus equipment up and running, and the poor class-D portmaster may wake up to find himself with a superdreadnought parked against his highport and thousands of Naval troopers testing the available bars, brothels and brigs to their limits.

A “mushroom” port started out small but had to grow quickly as the volume of trade increased exponentially. Sometimes, this may be because the original analysts grossly underestimated the star system’s potential, or because of the decline of a rivalling system, but quite often the mushroom growth is intentional. Starports are expensive, both to build and to maintain. Poor worlds may not have the money to purchase a Class-C outright, so they start with a simple landing field and slowly build up the port from the revenue brought in by interstellar trade. Each time the port grows, it generates more income, which is in turn invested in the modernisation of the port.

While very sensible in the economical view, mushroom ports are often a headache for administration, personnel and traders alike. Maintenance of the facilities is difficult because ducts and pipes may conform to wildly different standards from one room to the next (and the planet may even have gone through two or more tech levels since the first ones were installed). Docks, storehouses, recreational areas and malls may have been haphazardly added to the existing facilities wherever there was room for them, forcing people to take long detours as compared to the short and efficient commute of a clean layout. And yes, this issue does apply to firefighters, police and paramedics as well.

Insurgents, terrorists and criminals find more crannies to hide from the police at a mushroom port, and any defense plan against riots or boarding actions is likely to contain a lot of what-ifs. Mop-up operations in mushroom ports are notoriously difficult and involve a lot of sniping from unexpected quarters.

Mushroom highports may also have stability problems, because every bit that is added on changes the station’s center of gravity and must be balanced out by its gravs and thrusters. The structural integrity is also far lower than that of a planned highport, where spars and struts would have been optimised from the start and run the whole length of the port in one piece. Such a port may be literally shaken to pieces or pulled into a decaying orbit if an especially large ship makes a crash docking or scrapes along the mooring struts. These issues mean that mushroom ports are often only able to serve a much lower tonnage of ships than their class suggests. Of course, in the face of lucrative trade or Naval subsidies, those limitations are pretty often overlooked or ignored.

If a port is particularly puzzle-pieced, traders along the Solomani border refer to it as a “Frankenstein port” (or “frankenport” for short). The expression appears to have its origin in ancient Terran literature, but this has never been confirmed.

To create a mushroom port, the Referee will have to change some of the access lines on the diagram, or add separate areas. It is common to have a second Civilian Dock or Bulk Cargo Dock added somewhere, even if you have to drive the cargo all the way through the Residential zone to get it into storage. Feel free to experiment!

Civilian dock

This is where lighter freighters up to 1,000 dtons and passenger liners of all sizes dock. At the downport, accomodations may be fairly Spartan (an empty field and a few blast pits) or lavish (single roofed berths with their own gravity and atmospheric environment, able to simulate a wide range of planetary conditions).

Berths at the highport may be either external (simple struts tipped with docking clamps and an airlock large enough to allow freight transfer), or the whole berth may be basically a ship-size airlock that swallows the vessel whole before the outer hatch is closed and the interior pressurised with whatever atmosphere was specified. Requesting a special atmospheric mix and/or pressure beforehand may require negotiations and will almost certainly add to the berthing cost—if it is possible at all. Enclosed berths will be separated by fireproof airlocks and can be quarantined singly.

Atmosphere is pumped into the berth from either the station’s Life Support or tanks stored in the Cargo Storage or Fuel Storage area. In any case, the atmospheric ducts and pipelines require constant maintenance and are prime targets for terrorist attacks, as the different atmospheric components may yield highly toxic or explosive compounds when mixed. This is why few ports have the capability to produce any but “human standard” atmosphere.

Ships can be refuelled from the Fuel Storage area via fuel trucks or pipelines. Simple maintenance and repairs can be effected here; anything more serious requires the ship to be moved to the Civilian Construction area.

Crash teams from the Damage Control and Fire Department areas will usually be on standby whenever a ship docks or launches.

Cargo will be handled by dock workers or the ship’s crew themselves; it may be transferred by cargo truck to a Rental Booth rented by the ship’s owner, or to Cargo Storage. Low-grade ports may lack this service, and goods must be moved by the ship’s crew itself to its destination.

Adventure Seeds

  1. At a shrunk downport, all operational blast pits are occupied. A low-TL courier from a neighbouring world needs a blast pit equipped with grav projectors to make a safe landing, so the travellers’ ship (which is manoeuverable enough to land in a conventional pit) is bumped to one of the mothballed pits. Each pit has an enclosed hangar bay attached. The one in the mothballed berth needs to be opened manually using a power winch. As the travellers raise the storm shutter, they discover that the hangar still holds a forgotten vessel. The ship is a derelict and may still have cargo on board or star maps in its log.
  2. As 1., but the vessel is owned by pirates who “parked” it here to keep it out of the way – it has become notorious in this subsector, and they wanted to wait until the worst uproar was over. When they hear of the travellers’ ship being shunted to this pit, they know they must act quickly to get their ship off the premises. The travellers are told that the starport police will visit the pit to identify the vessel, but it might take several hours since all available personnel are need to deal with the heavy traffic right now. The pirates have that long to get the characters’ ship out of the berth (it sits in the way of the corsair’s takeoff). Their actions may range from threatening the travellers to hijacking their ship. If worse comes to worst, they will try to blow the power plant.
  3. As 1., but the hangar has recently been used as a headquarters and slave pen for a human trafficking ring. They may be able to free the few remaining slaves from the cages on the walls, but the guards left by the ring start firing on the slaves to silence them as witnesses.
  4. A large Aslan/Zhodani/Baronial ship has been set up in a stand-off orbit near the highport and declared that polity’s embassy to the system – the faction in question has committed some serious breaches of conduct during the last war, and isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. One of the ambassadorial staff members wishes to visit the port incognito (as incognito as a seven feet tall space lion can ever be), and arranges for the travellers to shuttle him to the civilian dock on their ship. The plan was leaked, though, and their berth’s door is picketed by protesters who shout slogans and threats. The travellers are effectively trapped in their own berth until they can get permission to take off.
  5. As 4., but the protesters crawl into the berth via the maintenance shafts. They are now inside with the ship, and any takeoff into space will incinerate the protesters and blow them into space when the hatch opens. The travellers will have to subdue them, without resorting to lethal force. To add to the problems, their passenger is somewhat hot-headed and so enraged by the insults (or frightened by the raw emotions xe senses in the picketeers’ minds) that xe begins lashing out with a dewclaw or psychic powers if not restrained.
  6. As 5., but there is a team of four assassins hidden in the crowd of harmless protesters. At the last instant, the Aslan’s keen combat senses or the Zhodani’s telepathy give xir a warning, and xe will tackle the targeted traveller and shove them out of the way of the silenced gunshot. To the high-strung nerves of the travellers (who may not even have registered the shot), this looks like an attack.
  7. The refuelling at this berth is somewhat sluggish. When the ship’s engineer checks the valves, xe discovers a time bomb wired to one of the pumps by Ine Givar terrorists – as soon as a specified amount of L-Hyd has streamed through the pump, it will go off, causing a huge explosion. The storm valves have been disabled, so the hydrogen explosion will carry back to the tanks at the Fuel Storage section. Turning off the flow will likely explode the bomb prematurely. They need to find a way to divert the liquid hydrogen and pump a harmless fluid through the rigged pump until they can have an expert disarm the bomb.
  8. A shabbily dressed person visits the travellers in their berth. Xe comes from an outlying space station in the system that has been decommissioned. Part of the station’s population remained there (they are an “undesirable” ethnicity on the main world, and fear persecution or discrimination if they were to return), and are now slowly starving. Xe asks the travellers to ferry a few containers of grain and protein mush to the station. Unfortunately, xe cannot pay, so xe has to resort to outlandish promises or, if worse comes to worst and the travellers refuse, taking one of them hostage. Xe has a small bomb with a dead man’s switch and a snub pistol, but xe isn’t a killer, just a very desperate person who has friends and relatives starving on that rock.

Bulk Cargo Dock

Dominated by huge cranes, laser-marked unloading areas and giant container-handling equipment. Civilian freighters over 1,000 dtons dock here. Sometimes this part of the dock is also used by smaller traders that have no passengers on board and just wish to load and unload their cargo quickly. If the Civilian Dock is full, surplus free traders are also shunted here, and on large fleet maneuvers that involve more ships than the Military Dock can service, the Navy will also requisition berths here. Naval ships take precedence over merchant shipping, and the haughty Navy personnel rarely get on well with trader crews, which can lead to a lot of friction where they are crammed into the same dockspace.

The same facilities as in the Civilian Dock – refuelling, simple repairs, emergency crash teams and cargo transferral – are available here. Rather than being divided into compartments, each ship in its own blast pit, the Bulk Cargo Dock is a huge, sprawling area. In the highport, there may be one or more massive airlocks that accommodate a large ship each; after the airlock is put under pressure, the inner door opens and the ship may be taxied to its berth on gravs. Most bulk freighters do not actually land but just moor against one of the highport’s many cargo airlocks.

Adventure Seeds

  1. An error in clearance results in a huge 10,000 dton bulk hauler entering the berth zone – and the travellers’ ship hasn’t been taxied out of the way. If the travellers are quick, they can disconnect their ship from the fuelling lines and manage an emergency takeoff – only there is nowhere to go. The airlock is blocked by the incoming freighter, so the travellers’ ship has to weave between dock crew, workbots, cranes, containers and parked ships inside the huge landing bay to get out of the hauler’s way.
  2. As 1., but another tramp freighter’s crew panic as they see the travellers’ ship heading their way and start up their own vessel. They aren’t as skilled or lucky as the travellers, and their ship collides with a parked free trader. The travellers have to land in a safe spot and enter the burning wreck to save the crew.
  3. As 1., but the freighter’s clearance to land was not a simple clerical error – the travellers find the landing bay’s traffic controller slumped dead in his seat with a needle-gun wound in the back of his neck. The clearance code was entered by hand. Someone wants the travellers dead, and is ready to kill lots of innocent bystanders in order to reach their objective.
  4. The travellers are hired to sniff out a band of Zhodani spies/pirate operatives/corporate mercs (insert appropriate kind of bad guys here) who are entering the port as stowaways in a bulk freighter’s cargo hold. There is just not enough time to search all the stacked containers in the hold to find the one holding the insurgency team; they have to keep the docked freighter under close but covert surveillance until the bad guys emerge from their hiding place. That means the travellers have to find a place to hide, avoid patrols and security holocameras, and keep the observation up for several days.
  5. The dockworkers are on strike. Already, merchant vessels arriving at the port have to be put into holding orbits, and the Port Authority has flown in strike-breakers to keep up with the demands of the cargo ships. The replacement workers are hardly skilled, cargo supervisors are overworked (and harassed by the strikers’ pickets), there is a lot of confusion, and freight gets misplaced. Some of the contents of containers delivered to the travellers’ ship are not what it says on the tin. And the original owners are not happy to discover that fact. Whether it is a cargo of valuable antiques for a noble’s collection, military hardware for a radical religious sect, or contraband that should have gone into the hold of a smuggling ship, the original owners will be sending a team of thugs to reclaim their stuff.
  6. As 5., but the strike was organised by a hostile outside faction. Some of the strike-breakers are in fact terrorists or agents who use the bustle and confusion to a) place explosive charges at strategic points, b) stalk and kidnap a certain person and put xir in a cargo container for shipping to the faction’s headquarters on a chartered free trader, or c) start taking the trade captains and dock supervisors as hostages.
  7. As 5., but the containers weren’t misplaced. Someone used the confusion and the new workers´ inexperience to swap cargo manifests. They want to use the travellers’ ship to conveniently get rid of a batch of incriminating contraband that was burning a hole through the floor of one of the Rental Booths. The travellers may find themselves with a hold full of frozen slaves or illegal narcotics and no idea how to explain that to their destination port’s authorities.
  8. As 7., but the criminals will want their cargo back as soon as it’s out of the system – there is already a pirate ship waiting at their destination jump point.
  9. A ship captain’s pet (maybe an incorial [Freelance Traveller #88, July/August 2018] or a podge [Freelance Traveller #37, January 2013]) has escaped and is now on the loose in the cavernous hangar bay. This wouldn’t be a problem if it hadn’t stolen something small and extremely important from the travellers (a memory chip, the ship’s code key, the engagement ring of one of the travellers’ lost love). It is flitting up and down walkways, cranes and lift-jacks, jumping from shoulder to shoulder on the startled deck crew and dodging between cargo crates. The travellers will have to spread out and block its venues of escape, and then try to calm the little critter until they can capture it.