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The Shuttle Berth

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue.

Here is where the in-system shuttles dock. Some ports keep a permanent fleet of shuttles, cutters, and gigs on a regular pay roster, but usually, shuttle runs are made by freelancing enterprises. Fees are a matter of negotiation, except where the port master dictates fixed prices. From here, goods and passengers can be dispatched from highport to downport and vice versa, to other cities on the planet, and to other destinations in-system. Flights are scheduled either with Traffic Control, or the shuttle berth may have its own flight administration. This is usually handled by a Port Authority official, but in some smaller ports, the freelancing enterprises have banded together and regulate their own schedules.

At the highport, this area may also house several tug craft for the convenience of heavier or damaged ships. Most ports require any ship larger than 1,000 tons to be towed into place by commercial tugs; an accident on manual control could be disastrous for the port. Tug pilots are usually well-paid professionals selected for their mental stability and resilience, but even so, some crack under the strain. Regular psychological counselling and evaluation are mandatory at many ports.

Scrappers and scavengers operating from the port will usually rent a berth here for their vessel, and the port authority may also have a few official salvage craft.

Adventure Seeds

  1. A friend or Contact of the travellers, a former free trader crewman, now owns a shuttle and makes a living ferrying cargo and passengers to and from the highport. Whenever the travellers are visiting the port, they are invited to his place to swap a few drinks and stories. This time, when they show up, their friend is missing. Someone chartered xir shuttle for a trip to the asteroid belt, and they just vanished from the radar. They may have had an accident. The travellers may feel compelled to retrace their friend´s planned route and render assistance.
  2. As 1., but the person who chartered the shuttle is a pirate or smuggler who has stashed illegal goods on an asteroid and wants to retrieve them. The traveller’s friend is an inconvenient witness who will have to be eliminated later.
  3. As 2., but several factions of pirates arrived at the same time and had a firefight on the asteroid. The shuttle, with several large holes in it, is drifting in the vicinity. The person who chartered the shuttle and the travellers’ friend are being held captive and tortured for the location of the stash.
  4. The travellers have business at the lowport and book cargo or passenger space on a shuttle. The pilot suddenly falls ill in the middle of the descent, and one of the travellers has to override the security and ‘take the wheel’ before the shuttle spins out of control and burns up in the atmosphere. Was it just something the pilot ate, is this the start of a pandemic, or did someone poison xir to ensure one of the passengers was killed in the crash?
  5. A large Imperial warship flotilla visits the system for fleet maneuvers. All available civilian shuttles are requisitioned and work around the clock to provision the ships; civilian trade, passenger and cargo movement grinds to a halt. The shuttle capacity is hardly enough for even the most basic needs of the flotilla, and “extras” are out of the question, so some junior officers discreetly ask the travellers for their ship’s boat’s services. They want to visit certain young ladies or gentlemen planetside whose acquaintance they made on a prior visit to this system. And they brought a crate of expensive liqueur that is a) contrary to regulations and b) considered illegal on the planet. The travellers have to dodge MP patrols and customs officers to deliver their amorous passengers to their destination, and (of course) pick them up again in time before the flotilla leaves.
  6. As 5., but one of the young officers, a hothead, is challenged to a duel and needs a second. Duels are, of course, both forbidden to officers by Imperial decree and illegal on the planet. After xe defeats the challenger, the lieutenant and xir paramour need to get the hell out of Dodge.
  7. As 5., but the young gents and ladies have found other suitors while the officers were out guarding the Imperium’s borders – they don’t mind a bit of dalliance with a former lover, mind you, but someone (the travellers) will have to distract the present lovers, who might get violent if they learn they are being cuckolded.
  8. As 5., 6., or 7., but suddenly, unknown warships are picked up by the sensors, and the flotilla is being put on alert. Suddenly, the officers’ absence is no longer a negligible breach of duty but a capital offense. The travellers need to pick up their patrons (who may have sought out quiet places to be alone and undisturbed with their lady/boy friends and may be difficult to find), sober them up and smuggle them aboard their warship so they can pretend they had been in their staterooms all along.
  9. An accident at the shuttle dock killed several sophonts. The travellers are hired by starport security to investigate. The pilot who made the crash landing wasn’t exactly popular. He stole another pilot’s girlfriend (who works as a dispatcher at the shuttle bay), abused her until she broke up with him, insulted the head of the repair crew maintaining the shuttles, picked a fight with a bunch of Navy engineers in a bar, and was generally a tyrant in the small empire of the shuttle dock. His foul temper was a byword. It seems there is no lack of people with a motive if it was more than just a faulty maneuver grav that killed the pilot.
  10. A band of pilgrims has duly visited their faith’s local shrines and are on their way back to the highport and the liner their hierophant chartered for the use of the faithful. Unfortunately, they cannot entrust their trip to the highport to just any pilot, and the fellow believer who was supposed to ferry them up the gravity well has fallen ill/had an accident/got beaten up by locals/was discovered with a prostitute in the red-light area and is no longer “suitable”. The enraged pilgrims raise hell and obstruct the shuttle area with their loud protests. After the travellers or the shuttle dock supervisor have calmed them down a bit, they need to find a suitably pure pilot – strictly vegetarian, virgin (the travellers may need to forge a certificate), non-swearing, in good bodily health (protracted illness is a sign of divine disfavour), and able to cheerfully stand a bunch of snotty bigots for the duration of the trip. And the liner is leaving in five hours, so there isn’t much time to make all the necessary arrangements. By this time, the supervisor is ready to pay the pilot triple the normal fee just to be able to get the pilgrims out of his dock and return to something like normal schedule.
  11. A tug pilot is having a bad day. His pension tab, which he had diligently paid for twelve years, was cancelled, his wife just left him for his (former) best friend, and the doctor diagnosed him with a tumour that he can’t afford to get treated. While towing a liner with a hundred souls aboard, he snaps and threatens to crash the liner into the port. His demands are erratic – he wants to talk to his wife (who left the port to live planetside, no current address given), he wants to see a doctor but is deathly afraid the doctor will sedate him, he wants to talk to his mother (who died last year). A Marine boarding is out of the question because the pilot could accelerate the liner into the port at the sight of an assault boat, and even if the Marines secured the controls immediately, there wouldn’t be enough time to bring the ship around before it crashes. The travellers are hired either as negotiators, or their ship is requisitioned to get a doctor aboard.
  12. A tug pilots’ strike has created a situation where larger ships cannot dock – they have to be parked in orbits outside the highport, and their cargo shuttled back and forth by the available free traders. There is good money to be made for a group of travellers with their own ship. On one of the shuttle runs, the bulk freighter’s supercargo behaves oddly and is unnecessarily insistent that the crates not be opened. (Xe is doing a bit of private smuggling on the side, and the crates contain contraband).
  13. A shuttle pilot approaches the travellers: xe is being blackmailed by an organised crime ring into delivering packages of contraband with xir regular shuttle runs. Xe is deathly afraid of being caught, but if xe doesn’t comply, the mobsters have threatened to hurt xir kid sister. The travellers are asked to get the girl to safety so the pilot can go to the police without fear of retribution.
  14. At a small port, the freelance shuttle pilots have joined together as a guild and hired a dispatcher to manage their docking and flight schedules. Recently, though, they have come to suspect xir of embezzlement/leaking information to pirates/aiding smugglers/…, and they want xir to leave xir post quietly. Unfortunately, xe has the computer codes and all the traffic files, and could cause a lot of disruption if xe decided to make things difficult for the shuttle pilots. The travellers are asked to step on xir toes… politely… and induce xir by any means to get her to surrender the codes and leave without making trouble.

Typical Denizens of the Shuttle Dock

Brenna Diana Rasnick 9A9555, freelance shuttle pilot

Boat-3, Engineer-1, Drive (grav)-1, Carouse-1, Admin-0, Broker-0, Communications-0, Zero-gee-1, Melee(brawling)-1, Melee(blade)-0

Brenna is a typical freelancing shuttle pilot, a good-natured athletic woman in her thirties with deeply tanned skin, dark brown hair and slight almond eyes. The gene-coded IISS security clearance pin is in evidence on her lapel, marking her as someone entrusted with the handling of data containers from the X-Boat net. She owns two 95-dton shuttles and a 30-dton thrust-5 ship’s boat for fast courier services. One of the shuttles is operated by her husband Galen, a large portly man with a blonde beard, and she’ll hire K’Claat (see next entry) to drive the other one if someone requests the courier boat (which will always be piloted by her). She splits her time between X-boat tender runs retrieving data and regular cargo runs to and from the planet, but can be persuaded to get freight or passengers elsewhere in the system if the money is right.

Since Imperial regulations mandate a co-pilot, Brenna and her associates hire young pilots just out of training to sit with them in the shuttle’s cockpit. In that way, she saves a regular co-pilot’s fee, and the flyboys get to book their mandatory flight hours before progressing to full pilot status. Since she’s flown with so many of them during their pilot-in-training days and treated them fairly, she’s got a solid network of contacts among the shuttle, rescue and tug pilots.

K’Claat Corrin D87754, freelance shuttle pilot

Boat-4, Engineer-2, Carouse-0, Communications-0, Zero-gee-2, Melee(brawling)-1, Streetwise-2, Jack-of-all-trades-2

Hailing from a high-gravity world, K’Claat is a very short, slightly pudgy woman coming up only to lower chest height on an average-sized spacer. Most of her body mass is ultradense-fibre muscle, and she can bend iron bars with her hands. She wears her ash-gray hair short, and her bright blue eyes look out of a face creased with the premature onset of aging typical of high-gee world residents.

K’Claat has seen it all. She’s easily the most experienced pilot at the port, a passable mechanic, and the boat hasn’t been built yet that she can’t size up with a glance. A good judge of character, it’s near impossible to intimidate, con or smart-talk her. The port officials have a hard time with her because the only authority she acknowledges is that born of experience and proficiency. If she takes a liking to one of the travellers, she’ll be her best motherly self; otherwise, she cultivates a gruff and brusque persona.

K’Claat has no shuttle of her own. She does freelance service for various small enterprises who own shuttles and couriers, stepping in for sick pilots or taking specialty jobs that need an experienced hand at the controls. She’s never done illegal smuggling, though, adamantly refusing to have anything to do with the “small package trade”. Everyone who is anyone at the port will vouch for K’Claat´s honesty and trustworthiness.

Rattray Vert 384464, freelance shuttle pilot

Boat-2, Engineer-1, Broker-0, Smuggling-1, Persuade-2, Carouse-0, Gun combat (slug)-1, Jack of all trades-1, Streetwise-2, Gambling-0, Forgery-1

Another shuttle pilot, Rattray owns an aging 95-dton shuttle near the end of its operational life. Rather than effecting repairs, Rattray has put great effort in making the ship look good. To an untrained eye, the slick paintwork and newly installed panels suggest a modern boat in her prime. Underneath the panels, there is frayed insulation, tangled wires and rusty strutwork, the locker’s regulation-mandated spacesuits are leaky, and several of the emergency kits have been cannibalised. Rattray himself is a short, slight man with a too-ready smile and a tendency to get too familiar, especially with female clients. Regular visitors of the port avoid him; his clientéle are those who visit the port for the first time. To get those customers’ attention, he routinely underbids the other shuttle services’ fees, citing a (nonexistent) starport authority subsidy for his enterprise—supposedly because of his trustworthiness and long service.

Plagued by financial mishaps, Rattray has had to take less-than-honest shortcuts to make ends meet. Over the years, this has become a habit. He is likely to bend the truth a bit even where there is no necessity. If the travellers book his shuttle for a run, there is an 8+ chance that it is also carrying small packets of contraband – and he’ll be quick to try and pin the blame on the travellers if a custom search finds the stuff. His favourite trick is to pin the packets to the underside of his clients’ cargo pallets.

When cornered, Rattray will likely try to weasel his way out of trouble with fake promises and false accusations of other people. Only if he has no other recourse, he’ll employ his concealed snub pistol. He is a surprisingly good shot.

Allin Eltolay 465787, company shuttle pilot

Boat-2, Drive (grav)-1, Carouse-0, Admin-1, Communications-0, Zero-gee-0

Eltolay is not a freelancer but the pilot of a starport-subsidised shuttle service. As such, he considers himself a cut above the freelancers who work from the same berths. He has a regular salary, a pension plan, and mid-level security clearance which he takes a misplaced pride in (since it came with the job automatically). Somewhat taller than average, fair-haired and somewhat lanky, he looks dashing in the service’s uniform and bland in any other clothes.

Eltolay flies the company’s shuttle on a regular schedule. It is somewhat cheaper to use the subsidised service to get the goods or passengers delivered from the downport to the high side or vice-versa, and the insurance companies will be much more relaxed. The company’s schedule cannot be altered, though, which may mean a wait of two or three days for a free slot, and the shuttle will go only to the port and nowhere else. There’s also more red tape to be managed than with the freelancers.

Flight Lieutenant (ret.) Lasky Radrom 653589, company shuttle pilot

Boat-4, Gunnery-1, Zero-gee-2, Cutlass-1, Leadership-0, Carouse-0

Young Lasky distinguished himself as a fighter pilot in several fleet actions against a minor pirate empire. He had to leave the Navy due to a stress fracture in his thigh which cut his career short. No longer able to fly high-gee maneuvers (at least that was what the doctors said at the medical evaluation, although his own opinion differs), he found work in one of the shuttle companies operating from the starport. It is a good job, he supposes, but he misses the excitement of military life terribly. Should the travellers come to him with a heroic plan to foil dastardly Zhodani agents or rescue a lady in distress, he’ll ditch his job in an instant without a second thought, steal his own shuttle and violate every known traffic regulation to help them.

Lasky is a young man with a handsome face, his fair hair cut short save for a single lock that falls across his face at a rakish angle. He cannot deny his military upbringing, which show in his straight posture and clipped speech. He is an incurable optimist, altruistic and always cheerful. Out of his cockpit, he walks with a slight limp, but eschews the prescribed walking stick the doctors gave him.

Mubander Ling 466677, tug pilot

Boat-3, Drive (ground)-0, Engineer-0, Carouse-2, Computer-1

A middle-aged man with a black beard and a receding hairline, Mubander is good-natured and somewhat phlegmatic. Luckily, he is blessed with an energetic wife who keeps him from getting too torpid. He is a family-minded man and likes chatting about his wife (Linda) and kids (two little daughters and a boy) over the comm with the pilots of the ships he drags to their berth. It is his way of concentrating, and the pilots aren’t expected to contribute much to the conversation except to make noncommittal noises at the appropriate intervals.

Mubander’s tug is employed on semi-retainer by the starport, and he looks forward to another ten years of service and, finally, retirement.

Rog Anders 555654, scrapper

Boat-1, Engineer-3, Comm-0, Carouse-1, Gambling-1, Melee(blade)-1, Streetwise-1, Jack-of-all-trades-1

Clad in a threadbare orange jumpsuit or a battered but well-kept vacc suit, Rog looks as if he has led a rough life and aged before his time. His face is has deep wrinkles, and his prominent nose juts out of a spiky grey moustache. He owns a cutter with a salvage workshop module and two extra cargo outriggers (which slow the boat down but can be used to transport more salvage). A loner by nature, Rog will undertake forays into the belt (where there are a lot of abandoned stations and near-derelict ships that were parked there during the Long Night) and return with replacement parts that he sells to the port’s tinker community. He gets talkative only when he has had a few drinks too many at the starport bar.