This article originally appeared in the January/Feburary 2017 issue.
Constellation Lines is an interface line, homeported at Kresh, on the Imperial border in Old Expanses, and connecting the Yesta cluster in the Imperium (Old Expanses/Ile subsector) with a cluster of worlds straddling the Ral Ranta border (Hinterworlds/Cimeon subsector). Recently, a number of minor problems have all come to a head more-or-less at the same time, and the planetary government at Kresh has suspended the company’s license to operate. As part of the suspension, all accounts have been frozen (though not seized), insurance coverage placed in abeyance (though not cancelled), and so on. In short, the company still exists, but is not being permitted to operate until certain of the issues have been addressed. It’s not clear whether the company will have to declare bankruptcy as part of the cleanup.
The company operates a fleet of J3 merchant ships, ranging in size from 600-1000 tons. Some are pure freighters, some are mixed-use.
Part of the problem stems from a technically legal, but quite unusual arrangement: The ships’ captains are empowered to maintain a ship’s account separate from the company accounts, and use that account for speculative trading in cases where the standard guidelines for risk are exceeded—but where the captain or the crew member with the highest broker/trader skill believes that the actual risk is lower than the guidelines say it is. The company starts the accounts with a certain amount of ‘seed money’; once that seed money is doubled, the original balance is returned to company accounts, and the ship may trade on what’s left. Captains and broker/traders who manage to lose the seed money are generally instructed to find other employment, but not otherwise penalized.
With the company in financial difficulty, there is an argument with the creditor committee that the ships’ accounts should be considered company assets and impounded along with the rest of the assets. Under the law, the account is considered ‘part of’ the ship, so cannot be impounded—nor any action against them taken—until the ship is in port and has been served with appropriate papers.
One of the ships, the Ral Renter (a Naklaad-class merchant, cargo variant), is arriving. It receives orders from the company not to dock, and to stand by for further orders. The captain takes the ship’s cutter—alone—to try to get clarification.
What’s Going On?
There are a number of situations that the company’s problems have caused:
- There is actually no way for the company to avoid liquidation. The ship will be seized if it docks. They were ordered to stand off because the exec who issued that order is actually trying to ‘cut a deal’ with a shady syndicate—a deal that would benefit him, at the expense of the company’s creditors. It is not clear whether the stand-off order is actually legal. The captain of the ship is in on the possible deal; he and the exec—and a few others in the company—have been skimming from the accounts for years. The purser can figure out that something is up if he goes over the ship’s books with a fine-tooth comb, but he won’t be able to figure out the details, or who is involved.
- The holds are filled with a mix of prepaid freight and speculative cargo. The recipients for the freight are waiting for it; delay in unloading will cause them some difficulty, as the shipment is necessary for them to maintain their own production—if they have to shut down production, even temporarily, it will cause delays in delivering product to their customers, which will in turn cause further similar delay and problems. The resultant liability could be considerable. It is not clear whether that liability would attach to the company, or to the ship—it depends on whether the standoff order is legal, and whether the shady dealings get ‘busted’.
- The speculative cargo has all of the proper paperwork showing that it’s a legal cargo, and the cargo does match the manifests if checked. However, if the purser goes over the books as described in 1, he can’t find a record of the funds used to purchase it, and the risk on the speculation is clearly outside the risk parameters set by the company for direct use of company funds.
- A SPA boat approaches the ship, demanding to be allowed aboard
for inspection. A pre-docking inspection is not unusual; normally,
it’s just a check of cargo vs manifest plus a few safety checks.
They provide assurances that they are not going to take any action
that would be prejudicial to the ongoing negotiations.
The SPA finds some violations, and state that the violations must be corrected before they will be granted docking clearance. Normally, the company would send out a repair ship to address the issues, or would arrange for the ship to be towed in instead of docking under their own power. With the company in disarray, however, neither is likely to happen soon, even in the absence of the questionable stand-off order.
- Because of the financial situation, the company has stopped paying salaries. The families of the crew are beginning to suffer; with the crew not having income and the company in trouble, neither they nor their families can get credit. If the crew leaves the ship, to find berths that pay, they will be deemed to have mutinied and lose their standing as creditors. Additionally, if the ship is left with no crew aboard, it will be deemed abandoned and open to salvage, which includes anything, freight or cargo, in the holds.
There are several roles that the PCs could be cast in: they could be the crew of the ship, looking to supply the ship, find a way to get money to their families, get the repairs done, get the freight to its consignee, and so on. They could be outsiders in a position to help the crew achieve one or more of those aims. They could be representatives of the syndicate, trying to figure out a way to double-cross the executives they’re dealing with. They could be representatives of Constellation, doing a mandated audit of the company’s assets before the company is formally placed into liquidation.
Referees should consider other twists to the situation: for example, Constellation might actually be aware of the skimming, and, working with the SPA and the planetary courts and law enforcement, have ‘faked’ the financial difficulties looking to smoke out the skimmers—and when they poke their heads up, they’re nabbed, and the financial difficulties quickly get resolved (which includes paying back salaries, with bonuses). Or, the financial difficulties are due to the company trying to prevent a hostile takeover. Or, the ‘shady syndicate’ is in fact a cover for a competitor attempting a hostile takeover.