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Finding Your Way Around the Starport

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue.

This series will, over the next few installments, cover the various parts of a starport and how they interact with each other, and what travellers can expect here. Each section will be given a short description and be furnished with a few adventure hooks and possibly typical specimens of the kind of people you could meet there. This is the fourth installment of the series; the first covered the general layout, the Civilian Dock, and the Bulk Cargo Dock; the second covered the Shuttle Berth; the third looked at Search and Rescue.

Traffic Control

This may be a simple radar tower crewed by a bored controller, or a huge bustling hive structure jutting out of the port’s outer wall, studded with sensor banks and communication arrays. Traffic control is responsible for the co-ordination of all shipping entering and leaving port. Around a highport, a bewildering number of robotic buoys mark waiting zones and lines of approach. Ships entering the port’s control zone are hailed and asked to identify themselves and their cargo. They may be directed to a loitering area pending a customs search by a Naval vessel, told to wait for the next open slot for docking, or given approach coordinates immediately. Ships are expected to obey all directions given by Traffic Control; if they stray from their assigned paths, they may (after a few warnings, if the controller has a good day) find themselves targeted by the port’s weaponry in the Defense Center, intercepted by fighters from the Military Dock, or boarded by a Marine squad. “Endangering spatial traffic” is a serious offense, due to the amount of damage and loss of life a spaceship collision can cause.

If the official in charge of Traffic Control is diligent, the robotic buoys are regularly inspected by hand for tampering. Reprogramming the buoys has been a favourite tactic of terrorist groups in the past, and the danger this can create for shipping and the port itself is frightening. Ships colliding in the thick traffic near the port can cause immense damage, not only to each other, but also to the fragile port structure and its inhabitants; ships colliding in atmosphere or crash-landing due to falsified altitude information can devastate the port and the surrounding area, which is usually as densely urbanised as it gets on the particular planet.

Adventure Seeds

  1. A group of traffic controllers has been mind-controlled by Zhodani agents who use them to guide a “shadow ship” to berth. The ship is running near-silently and equipped with stealth features, sensor-baffling and radar/lidar-absorbing hull coating. The travellers’ ship inadvertently crosses the Zhodani ship’s path. If they check arrivals and departures, they find that the shadow ship hasn’t been registered, but one berth has been suddenly closed as “under maintenance” at the same time that the ship arrived. It may carry more Zho infiltrators, psi-enhancing drugs for the local Psionic institute, or it may be there to help a traitor defect.
  2. Pirates have bribed a traffic controller. Xe is leaking the flight schedules of merchant shipping in the system to the gang. The travellers are hired to investigate.
  3. As 2), but the schedules have already been leaked. The administration tries frantically to ensure the safety of all ships already dispatched that cannot be recalled. The travellers’ ship is requisitioned for escort duty on outgoing freighters. If their ship has no weapons, they are hired to carry and deploy fighters instead.
  4. As the travellers´ ship approaches the port, there is a sudden blackout of traffic control. There is a huge number of ships and boats on landing vectors. Some stick to their original course, some panic and abort. Weaving through the chaotic traffic, avoiding a collision and managing a docking run call for piloting skill and good reflexes.
  5. As 4), but the blackout was no accident. It was a terrorist attack/port-wide cascading reactor and life support failure/prelude to an attack by hostile naval forces.
  6. A friend of the travellers’, a free trader captain, has been kept waiting for days in a holding orbit. This is an act of petty revenge; he had a fling with a traffic controller’s fiancée, and the man took umbrage. The travellers need to pay the man a visit or talk to his superior (who, unfortunately, happens to be girl’s father and the controller’s prospective father-in-law). Meanwhile, the girl has fallen madly in love with the captain and begs the travellers to get her to his ship. If they do, the trouble multiplies. The captain’s pilot and current lover is a very jealous woman with severe anger issues. The girl’s father will refuse to believe she went to the ship of her own free will, and will file charges of abduction against the travellers. There might even be a marine assault team sent to rescue the girl if the travellers botch the three-way diplomacy badly.

Sample Denizens of the Traffic Control Area

Hassan Mbdanti 4557A7
traffic controller
Ground Vehicles-0, Administration-0, Law-0, Science/physics-1, Computer-2, Sensors-2, Communications-1, Carouse-0

Hassan Mbdanti is a typical traffic control employee. Of medium height and at the beginning of male-pattern baldness’ onset, he wears the slate grey half-civilian uniform of the Starport Authority with pride. When off-duty, he likes going out for a few Sundowners with his friends in the more respectable part of the Bars and Brothels section. As an enthusiastic fan of the local zero-gee ballgame team, he can hold a conversation about the game’s finer points for entirely too long. On almost every other topic, he is a bit of a bore. Which may be why his long-time girlfriend left him last year and took up with some adventurous space tramp. Since then, he has come to detest the freighter captains he has to guide to berth – and secretly wishes he was more like them.

Leon Dalmor Lidd 4559A8
Traffic Control supervisor
Administration-2, Law-0, Science/physics-0, Computer-2, Communications-0, Melee/brawling-1, Athletics/strength-0, Carouse-1, Leadership-1

Dal (as both his friends and his subordinates call him) runs a section of five controllers in the traffic department. Often seen in shirt-sleeves and never without his mokaberi cup, he has the look of a boxer gone to seed: tall and broad-chested, with a blocky jawbone, thinning hair and a beginning pot belly. (He actually used to be an amateur-league boxer in his student days, but his wife convinced him to stop.) Friendly and considerate, Dal tries to run his section on mutual trust and comradeship, and he does what he can to cushion his subordinates from his boss Medvedev’s strident efficiency.

Lidd would like to say he trusts his team implicitly. But recently, two comptrollers were arrested by the SPA for sedition – not in his section, thank the stars – and it has been all over the news how pro-Zho propaganda leaflets were found with them. He became uncomfortably aware just how much damage a terrorist or enemy agent in the traffic control department could cause. And so he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in anything that might be out of the ordinary in his team – even something as innocuous as longer-than-usual trips to the loo.

Irika Medvedev, Esq. 273BAA
Traffic Control department head
Leadership-2, Computer-2, Sensors-0, Law-1, Communications-1, Administration-3, Persuade-2, Intimidation-2

Tall, spindly and bird-frail, Madame Medvedev is a resolute woman of indeterminable age. She has conducted the port’s traffic control for longer than anyone else can remember, outlasted three portmasters, and quietly and effectively run her department all the while. A strict disciplinarian, she is held in something approaching awe by the junior traffic control personnel and is a constant pain in the behind for anyone in the middle level who is getting too complacent in xir job.

Medvedev has a long-running feud with the port’s Naval command, who constantly try to gain more control over the workings of the civilian traffic authority. Up to now, they’ve failed to achieve anything more than petty meddling, but it’s definitely not for lack of trying.

Relations are not helped by the fact that she detests the military mindset, and views soldiers as trigger-happy, pompous fools. Unfortunately, the port admiral is a fine specimen of this particular brand of officer, and the two of them cannot stand being in the same room with each other.