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Finding Your Way Around the Starport

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue.

The Scrapyard

Even at the tidiest starport, decades of maintenance and repair work on ships of all sizes produce a veritable mountain of out-dated, defective, discarded or replaced equipment, from nanovalves and resistors to the complete hulls of dismantled ships. The scrapyard, usually located adjacent to the Civilian Construction Shipyard for the sake of convenience, quickly grows to a size never intended by the starport’s designers, and may start to fill up Rental Booths, surplus parking berths in the Civilian Dock or container space in the Bulk Cargo Dock. In the end, many highports simply extend the junkyard into space—an airlock is installed, a certain area of empty space is parcelled off, marked by robotic buoys and filled up with scrap. “Shepherd bots” or workpods with a human crew (based at the Shuttle Dock), are detailed to patrol the perimeter and stop any pieces of scrap threatening to tumble out of the field. (Workpod pilot strikes can quickly make the approach to the port pretty dangerous as unattended larger pieces stray into the docking vectors—a catastrophe for Traffic Control.)

The scrapyard is a scavenger’s paradise, and once it has grown to a certain size, it will be lined with sprawling freelance workshops that are home to a lively community of modders, techs, scrappers and junkers. If the scrapyard is declared off-limits to enterprises by the port master, the workshops can be found in the Rental Booths section instead, but exist they do.

With a modicum of connections in the scrapper community, it is often possible to get one’s ship maintained or repaired at a price far lower than the official shipyard’s—if you don’t mind patch-up jobs involving parts from many different ship types and a terrified squawk from your subsidy bank. Modders usually have a can-do attitude and find ways around problems that the regular repair techs would write off as unsolvable.

This is also where illegal modifications to ships can be obtained. Many pirates visit respectable ports under a false ID to get replacement parts or weapons. This makes the “junk zone” community dangerous in some ways, but also a good place to start inquiries into the shadier side of business at the port.

Contraband that cannot be conveniently stored in the Cargo Storage area is often hidden in the scrapyard until it finds a buyer. The scrappers are paid to look the other way. The best hideout is in the floating junk field extending from the highport, if you know someone in the workpod pilots’ guild or someone who programs the shepherd bots. There have been cases of entire refugee communities or slave cargoes smuggled insystem in survival containers, “parked” in the field and either placed in cold berth or supplied with life support and food by the junkers.

The scrapyard is also one of the easier points of entry into the spaceport if you want to avoid the authorities, both on the ground and at the highport. In many cases the accumulated junk extends over hundreds of square (or cubic) kilometers – impossible to patrol adequately, and the sheer amount of metal will spoof sensors and other surveillance gear. At the highport, his usually involves taking a vacc suit with a grav belt and a couple of extra oxygen bottles and drifting stealthily through space until one is surrounded by so much junk that it’s possible to use the grav belt without fear of detection. Older or poorer highports may lack sophisticated sensors, and doing the same stunt with a gig or even a scout ship on “silent running” is a staple with the heroic smuggler types in the holovids.

Adventure Seeds

  1. The travellers pull a hulk out of the scrapyard to strip it for parts. When they remove the access panels, they discover a cache of contraband. Neither the owners nor the starport police are exactly happy.
  2. The travellers discover the hulk of a military starship that still has a working power core and military-grade weapons. Later in the adventure, when they are chased by their enemies’ ship into the junk belt, they have the opportunity to power up the ship and give them a nasty surprise.
  3. The travellers need to enter the downport clandestinely, and choose to approach through the junkyard. The field is so huge that entire battalions of the Imperial Marines could not adequately patrol its interior. Unfortunately this also means that the yard is home to a species of local chaser/escaped spacers’ pets gone feral/gangs of half-crazy humans springing ambushes. Gunshots would certainly alarm the guards, so the travellers need to defend themselves… quietly.
  4. There is a secret community of refugees from a nearby planet who live in a pieced-together habitat made of starship hulks and cargo containers floating in the junk zone. Both the SPA and the planetary government have declared them illegal immigrants but also refused the extradition requests of their home world. The sympathetic junkers supply them with air and food, and they can grow some vegetables using an old hydroponics module that a humanitarian NGO has supplied, but on the whole their fate isn’t enviable. Some of the more ruthless elements within the Starport Authority wish to hire someone to discreetly sabotage the habitat’s life support. The travellers will not be told that there are children aboard.
  5. As 4., but it is not the life support the travellers are sent to sabotage. The refugees’ habitat has been secretly fitted with a pieced-together meson cannon from the scrapyard, and they have threatened to fire it at the highport if they are not granted amnesty and citizens’ rights.
  6. As 5., but the weapon cannot be destroyed without damaging the habitat. There are still children aboard the floating ark, and every trideo lens of every press agency in the system is covering what happens. The travellers need to get involved in some three-way diplomacy, aided and hindered (mostly hindered) by a veritable horde of reporters.
  7. As 4., but the refugees were exiled because they were members of a psionic sect on their home planet. A local crime lord supplies them with air and food, in exchange for the psionic services of some of them as teleporting burglars, telepathic negotiators, or clairvoyant spies. The refugees are miserable about being forced to participate in heinous crimes, but see no other way to provide breathable air to their children and spouses. Not to mention that the lord has two of his enforcers posted in the habitat, and several explosive charges rigged to the bulkheads – those need to be neutralised before anything can be done about the situation.
  8. As 7., but rumour has gotten out that there are psions among the refugees. Angry mobs picket the SPA, there have already been riots and looting, and the Authority seriously considers dispatching a squad of Marines to board the habitat. Which would set off the crime syndicate’s explosives and expose all inside to vacuum. If the travellers want to help, they must try to keep the SPA from overreacting under the pressure from the mob while they work frantically to free the refugees and render them safe from reprisals by the syndicate.
  9. A “junk-herders’” strike has gone on for several weeks. Large pieces of scrap are straying from the junk field, and already some are floating into the highport’s traffic-control lanes. A collision with a freighter or liner would be catastrophic. After a close shave approaching the starport (difficult piloting checks to avoid the floating hulk, then several more difficult checks to avoid swerving into other shipping), the travellers are less-than-politely asked to help keeping the space lanes clear. The military could have told Traffic Control that no number of laser shots will deflect or disintegrate a piece of junk, but Control disregarded the advice and expects the travellers to shoot to pieces any piece of junk that comes near the traffic vectors. Soon the travellers realise that it isn’t that easy: cutting up a big lump of scrap metal with lasers only results in several smaller but equally dangerous lumps heading outward in only slightly different directions. The danger to shipping is increased rather than decreased with each shot, and it doesn’t help that several other freelance ships are under similar orders and happily blazing away at the junk. When the travellers stop firing and start arguing, Traffic Control berates them and even threatens to have their ship shot down if they don’t resume firing. The travellers need to find someone who has a) authority over Traffic Control and a bit more sense, b) a meson gun that could smash the junk to atoms, or c) a ship with a cargo scoop or folding arm – all the while continuing making big rocks into smaller ones to keep Traffic Control happy.
  10. As 9., but an inbound luxury liner takes a stray shot from one of the overzealous freelancers; the pulse laser slashes open the drive and injures an engineer and three passengers. The travellers have to render medical and technical assistance before the ship crashes into the port, killing all aboard—and probably quite a few in the port.
  11. A Zhodani agent has given the starport police the slip and vanished into the junkyard. Teams of Marines scour the yard, but there are plenty of hiding places, the enraged scrappers displaced from their working spaces put up passive resistance (some even ineffectively pelting the battle-dressed Marines with pieces of junk), and since there aren’t enough anti-psi helmets to go around, reports of strange behaviour of the searching squads start cropping up. The travellers are caught in the middle of all this while they are abroad in the scrapyard looking for some parts for their ship.
  12. As 11., but the Zhodani has subtly controlled the minds of one of the Marine squads so that they are convinced that the travellers are Zhodani minions. The travellers have to use all their wits to avoid being stalked and shot by a team of well trained Marines. All the while, the spy will make the most of the distraction and quietly slip away.
  13. As 11., but the Zhodani has taken a scrapper’s child hostage. The SPA has already made it known that they won’t deal with terrorists, and sends in the Marines. The travellers and a hastily assembled posse of junkers armed with improvised weapons and technical gadgets have to get to the Zho before the Marines find him and quite possibly obliterate him and the child with a plasma gun.
  14. The starport police hires the travellers to infiltrate a smuggling ring operating out of the junkers’ community in the scrapyard. Posing as gunrunners or scavengers, they act as informants for their employers while trying to gain the trust of the smuggler bosses. The Navy Yard has had the same idea, and soon the travellers find themselves constantly at cross-purposes with the other team of infiltrators. When it becomes obvious that several Naval officers are behind the smuggling cartel, the travellers have to work together with the Navy team to set up a trap for the culprits – but can they trust them?
  15. A cargo container full of frozen slaves is discovered floating in the junk zone outside the highport. It was parked there by smugglers who never returned to reclaim it – two hundred years ago. Half of the slaves can still be revived – and they will be disoriented, not only by the adverse effects of long cold-berthing, but also by the culture shock of discovering a galaxy that has moved quite a bit ahead while they were sleeping. The travellers are hired by a young lawyer who has taken on their case pro bono, to help the poor souls get oriented while keeping off the sensation-hungry newshounds.
  16. As 15., but the frozen bodies are not slaves, as surmised. They are self-styled freedom fighters from a nearby world and rabidly anti-Imperial; they were smuggled off the planet when the Imperial Marines landed 200 years ago and seized the capital, but the smuggler (who was paid in advance) just parked them in the adjacent system’s junk field and made xirself scarce. Now the travellers slowly realise that they have a bunch of potential enemies of the state at their hands. Some are merely demagogues, some are all for calling it a day and want to quietly integrate into Imperial culture, while others are still gung-ho and ready to foment violent unrest. All of them know they still have a long prison or death sentence hanging over their heads… if someone goes as far as dusting off the databases of 200 years ago. And desperate people are bound to make desperate decisions.
  17. As 16., but the frozen bodies are an Aslan/Zhodani/Solomani/other faction’s invasion commando unit, frozen when their polity was still fighting a war with the Imperium. Their infiltration was abandoned due to a technical defect, and they were (conveniently?) forgotten during the peace talks. When thawed out, the soldiers will assume they are still at war. They will try to reunite, appropriate weapons and carry out their mission (destroying the highport, or taking vital areas and holding them until their fleet arrives). Some will be heavily disoriented from their long cryosleep. The travellers are hired by a high-ranking citizen of the soldiers’ home polity. They are tasked to try and persuade them to give up before their firefight with starport security and the port’s Marine contingent costs civilian lives. The travellers are given secret hypno-passwords that will supposedly render the soldiers harmless – but whether those still work on brains that have been in cryosleep for so long is anybody’s guess. Some may have to be persuaded or subdued the old-fashioned way.
  18. As 17., but the discovery of the cryo-container is no coincidence. The newly appointed ambassador from the soldiers’ home polity is from a radical political faction that wants to restart the border conflict. The incident is the perfect excuse to drag both empires again into war with each other. All while the travellers try to defuse things, the ambassadorial staff will add oil to the fire, “accidentally” provide the soldiers with the opportunity to steal weapons from the “careless” embassy guards, and trying to spin the incident as “ruthless Imperial Marines hunting distraught escaped war heroes” in the press. As the tone of official notes becomes harsher and harsher, the travellers realise that their only hope to avoid all-out war is to get one of the “war heroes” alive and persuade xir to testify against the war-mongering faction in front of their home’s main council.
  19. The travellers are hired to secretly meet a Contact in the scrap field. Negotiating the junk in a silent-running ship’s boat, they take xir aboard – only to have xir draw a gun and take them hostage as soon as xe is out of xir vacc suit. Xe wants to be taken to the asteroid belt in the boat. When the remaining travellers onboard the ship realise that the boat is missing, they have to either pursue it to the belt, or dock at the highport, break a few heads and find out where the stranger is headed. (This is a good opportunity to play a short intermezzo adventure if only half the group’s players showed up for the evening.)
  20. A rumour of pirate treasure “parked” in the starport’s scrapyard (either on the ground or in the highport’s floating junk zone) draws thousands of adventurous young sophonts. They swarm the yard, severely upset the travellers’ friends in the scrapper community, smash and dismantle valuable junk, start brawls and get themselves buried under junkslides. The Starport Authority makes no pretense of feeling responsible, and the area is too large to police effectively anyway. So some of the more hot-tempered junkers arm up with accelerator rifles or shotguns and set out into the yard to take the law into their own hands. The travellers have to go after them and knock some sense into them before they do anything they might regret later.
  21. As 20., but meanwhile a team of treasure-hunters has discovered the pirates’ cargo crates. They prepare to defend the trove as other bands start laying siege to the hulk. The travellers must try to defuse the situation, but everybody is hungry and scared as well as greedily excited, and that is a very explosive combination. Every team also has someone who is ready to backstab xir colleagues to get a (larger) share of the loot. If the action takes part in the highport’s junk field, the prospect of running out of air gives the situation an additional sense of urgency. As soon as the crisis is over (possibly after several casualties), the crates are found to contain obsolescent silicon chips – worth a fortune in the pirates’ day but near-worthless now. There are a few copper ingots that can be sold at scrap value (ha!) to cover medical expenses, but not much more.

Typical Denizens of the Scrapyard

LaMorna Cleek A95A73
Junk Technician – Former Naval Engineer
Vacc Suit-1, Mechanic-3, Engineering-4, Gun Combat(accelerator)-0, Melee(brawling)-1, Electronics-2, Leadership-0, Jack-of-all-trades-2

Former Chief Petty Officer Cleek is a short, wiry woman with close-cropped blonde hair, a pert nose and a vise-like handshake. Quietly discharged from the local navy after she refused the sexual advances of a superior officer, she declined to rest on the navy’s severance pay (read: hush money) and instead started her own ship-repair business at the starport. Now, ten years later, she is the go-to for everyone with a technical problem on their ship that refuses to be fixed. She can’t help being sarcastic around military types, and when Navy boys are too smug in her presence, she can’t help but try and take them down a notch.

LaMorna’s shop (“Superior Starship Supply and Repair”) is located in the Rental Booths section, but she does most of her business and most of her work in the scrapyard. When encountered, she will usually be accompanied by “Caddy”, an extensively modified, battered red servicebot that carries her toolkit and assists with repairs.

Deveed Merriwether 193994
Junk Technician
VaccSuit-1, Boat Pilot-2, Engineering-4, Mechanic-2, Electronics-2, Jack-of-all-trades-1, Carouse-1, Streetwise-3

“Old Merriwether” has been a fixture at the Junkyard for as long as people can remember. His sparse hair is white, his sunken cheeks splotched with age, his eyes rheumy, and his hands continually shake with palsy. (He has excellent hearing but pretends to be half-deaf just to spite people.) Unable to work, he still has a pretend booth in the Rental Booths section where he sits and smokes a hookah or watches a holovid, quietly rocking to and fro. The junker community holds him in a respect approaching awe, and their donations are keeping him alive. There is a standing rumour that they purchase illegal anagathic drugs for him because nobody wants to lose his knowledge.

Nobody knows how old Deveed really is. His personal data was lost in a cascading port computer failure during the last war some sixty years ago. He has an eidetic memory which hasn’t been touched by his age, and he is the only person who still knows where all the junk from the war was placed in the huge field of garbage that orbits the planet together with the highport. Back then, there was no time to keep records; shot-up wrecks were brought in for salvage every half-hour and just dumped wherever there was space for them. Now junkers who need that one special part come to Old Merriwether (bringing a customary gift of tobacco, money or a bottle of Judy), and he can usually give the co-ordinates where a certain hulk was deposited in the field that might have one onboard.

Roland Hakkon Mathyson 563799
Drive(grav)-0, Vacc Suit-1, Smuggling-3, Broker-2, Streetwise-3, Gun Combat(slug)-1, Boat Pilot-1, Sensors-0, Carouse-1, Gambling-0

Mathyson (“Math” to his friends) is a former smuggler captain who now has a regular booth in the Brokerage section. Together with his wife Leeana and her second husband Hounga he runs a perfectly legal cargo broker office to keep up proper pretenses. His real business, though, is maintaining a hidden smuggler berth in the middle of the junk field extending from the highport – a complete little haven capable of servicing boats up to 100 dtons. He has several freelance junkers and workpod pilots in his pay to operate the berth, and pays substantial bribes to a section of Traffic Control operators.

Recently, Roland is getting nervous about Deveed Merriwether; the old codger has started to nose around, even asking travelling freighter pilots to go out and have a casual look at certain areas of the junk field. His wife urges him to have the old man “removed”, but Roland is leery about killing a person in cold blood.

A tall man with thick brown hair and a handsome, square face, Roland is instantly likable. A tiny hint of scoundrel in his otherwise impeccable behaviour seems to make him instantly attractive to women (and the occasional man). He never shows that he is in constant pain: arthritic joints and fragile bones plague him since a few years ago (a result of spending much of his life in zero-gee on smuggler habitats and secret hideouts) – the reason he quit the life of a free-ranging smuggler captain, married and put down roots at the highport.

“Mouse” 545743
Junkyard urchin
Climbing-2, Stealth-1, Melee(Brawling)-0, Mechanic-0, Engineering-0, Jack-of-all-trades-2, Streetwise-1

“Mouse” is a lanky youth, with a greasy lock of hair falling sidewise across his face. He is the son of a scavenger couple who never came back from a salvage mission, and has been raised (of sorts) by the junker community. He makes a precarious living hiring out to mechanics and engineers who need an assistant, and is often seen hounding the Civilian Dock trolling for work. Fed up with poverty, he dreams of signing on with a free trader in the vague hopes of striking it rich, meeting beautiful women and touring all the exotic planets in the galaxy.

Alternately too shy and too forward with women, Mouse can be counted upon to make female co-workers uncomfortable. Loyal only to himself (a lesson he learned the hard way), he also has a hard time reciprocating good treatment. If a captain takes him on, xe will have to keep him on a tight leash for the first few months.

Rogvouzaen Ekza 676 78(4) (Charisma 7)
Workpod pilot
Boat Pilot-3, Zero-Gee-2, Mechanic-1, Vacc Suit-2, Melee (infighting)-1, Sensors-1, Carouse-1, Gambling-0

Rogvouzaen is a slender Vargr female with a long, narrow muzzle and alternately black and grey striated fur. She is missing the tip of her left ear, and her right ear flaps down on the side of her head with the weight of several earrings and plugs. She is always cheerful, sometimes annoyingly so. Until recently, she used to be apprentice to a cranky, misogynistic fat old freelance workbee pilot named Hamilton (“Ham”—she never learned his last name), because she was the only one who could stand his constant abuse. When he drank himself to death, nobody stepped forth to claim his pod and his job as a “junk-herder”, so she appropriated both and has ever since made herself indispensable to both the SPA supervisors and the junker community.

Rog is only just picking up on her old teacher’s illicit dealings. It turns out that he was one of the junk-herders who hid and retrieved contraband out in the scrap field for several small smuggler cartels. She considers offering the same service, but may need someone to help her figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t. And of course, she doesn’t know about the Mathysons’ enterprise in the yard. Starting to work for freelance smugglers may inadvertently bring her into conflict with them: she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

Lughaid Roderique Torres 486997
Junker community spokesman
Engineering-3, Electronics-1, Persuade-2, Carouse-2, Melee(blade)-0, Streetwise-2

The large, lemon-yellow-skinned Lughaid is the unofficial head of the port’s junker community. His most notable trait is an infinite patience, which stands him in good stead with both his bunch of over-individualistic and sometimes very vociferous scrappers and the pompous Port Authority officials he has to deal with. Currently he is feeling pressure from both sides: the SPA has decided to crack down hard on smuggling, and he suspects (i.e., knows full well) that several of his junkers are involved as helpers in large-scale contraband operations. His community looks to him to protect them from scrutiny, while he has to be seen vigorously rooting out the culprits by the Port Authority. The situation is getting such that he is seriously considering setting someone up as a scapegoat; either some hapless amateur smuggler without ties to the smuggling cartels, or a random bunch of free traders who happen to have business in the junk field.