Spy Rings and Container Ships

From Wikipedia’s United States Lines:

Duquesne Spy Ring

Main article: Duquesne Spy Ring

In 1941, two Nazi spies, Franz Joseph Stigler and Erwin Wilheim Siegler, worked for United States Lines as members of SS Americas crew. While on the SS America, they obtained information about the movement of ships and military defense preparations at the Panama Canal, observed and reported defense preparations in the Canal Zone, and met with other German agents to advise them in their espionage pursuits. They operated as couriers, transmitting information between the United States and German agents aboard. Stigler worked undercover as the chief butcher. Both remained on the SS America until the U.S. Navy converted that ship into the USS West Point.

Stigler and Siegler, along with the 31 other German agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring, were later uncovered by the FBI in the largest espionage conviction in U.S. history. Stigler was sentenced to serve 16 years in prison on espionage charges with two concurrent years for registration violations; Siegler was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges and a concurrent 2-year term for violation of the Registration Act.

The use of crewmen on large liners as observers and couriers would be a useful tool in Solomani Security’s bag of tricks.

From The Jumbo Econship and the Death of United States Lines

In the late 1970s, the most reliable industry forecasts saw the era of high oil prices lasting indefinitely, and it was projected that the price per barrel would double by 1985, meaning that any company that could find a way to weather the storm would be positioned for dominance as those that couldn’t adapt inevitably collapsed. The solution was what McLean dubbed the “Jumbo Econship”, which was an absolutely brilliant design. The Jumbo Econships were by far the biggest freighters yet conceived – 950 feet long, 57,000 gross tons, and able to carry nearly 4,500 containers- so large that many ports weren’t equipped to handle them and container terminals scrambled to make upgrades to accommodate the type.


Then, something unpredictable happened – oil prices collapsed. Rather than double by 1985 as predicted, oil instead reached historic lows. All of a sudden, the whole justification for the Econships evaporated. (…) It was a disaster- United States Lines filed for bankruptcy in 1986, straining under the debt it had accumulated building its Econship fleet. (…) The failure of United States Lines sent shockwaves through the global shipping industry and ranked as the biggest bankruptcy filed in US history up to that time. Selling the Econships proved one of the biggest challenges of the restructuring process, ultimately the nearly new vessels had to be sold off for basically scrap value.

Ironically, unencumbered by the high cost of building them in the first place, the ships went on to fairly long careers with other operators, and two of them are still sailing as of 2014, with the other 10 having all been scrapped in recent years after about a quarter century of service – not overly long, but a reasonable life span for a container ship.

Capitalism is really exciting, but the ability to bet the company on a single innovative idea and a shrewd guess about the future has the possibility for a serious blow-up, just as much as for serious profits.

As small operators, many PCs get to enjoy the boom & bust very up-close and personal. In a low-traffic environment like the Six Subsectors of the Imperial Empty Quarter, buying a 400-ton freighter is just as risky, just as much a gamble, and has just as much impact on local trade, as buying a 20,000-ton freighter in a more civilized sector. It’s not just pirates: actual planetary economies can be affected by the visit (or lack thereof) of a 400-tonner freighter in the Empty Quarter…

Why Hanjin’s Zombie Collapse Won’t Be the Last One

Just a comment from “The Dude”

If you read the book “The Box” by Marc Levinson it will give you the entire rundown on the history of the industry. Interestingly enough I have asked most of the top management of liner companies if they have read it and I almost always get a blank stare back. Container shipping has been a boom and bust business since its inception. The father of container shipping, Malcolm McLean went bust with US Lines in the 80’s. Todays liner shipping companies are run by managers who have no clue about running a business and in many cases no knowledge of the history of their industry.


Let’s say the merchant captain PC has been around the block a few times, and has a better grip on the subsector ebb and flow of trade than the parachuted-in line managers for the majors – yes, even Tukera Lines.

Let’s say he knows that a bust  is a’coming, and there is going to be a bloodbath in the industry – literally, depending on the corporate warfare environment. (The Empty Quarter loves it’s race & religion hostility: but in most of the Third Imperium, conflict is strongly grounded on profit/loss outcomes. “It isn’t hate: it’s business.”)

And let’s say that said merchant PC can — by calling on old friends, loan sharks, and/or certain stashed funds — can make a purchase of one of the “excess capacity” major freighters.

What’s the most outrageously daring venture he can put that huge cargo capacity to work for, which can bring the fastest returns? Troop transport and resupply? A colonial venture? A single, bet-it-all journey to a fabled, wealthy, distant system?


An Excerpt from The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

But the container didn’t just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean’s success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container’s potential.

Now, that’s an interesting thought.

In the Stellar Reaches timeframe, the Solomani Rim War – the largest conflict since the Final War of the Ancients – is raging away, and someone has to ship the ammo, rations, and equipment to the men (“regardless of species… or sex, for that matter”) at the front.

Of course, Tukera Lines grabbed the lion’s share, but even 1% of that business is a huge amount of money. Factor in the usual war profiteering, sweetheart deals, and once-in-lifetime opportunities, and even a successful “bit-player” can get stupid rich, if — and that’s a HUGE if — enough gambles pay off and the size & power of that expanding enemy list doesn’t quite get out of hand.

In more peaceful Imperial eras, any conflict zone can become hair-raising life-or-death battlegrounds for the PCs. If your ship is your life, even a Free Trader making a do-they-or-don’t-they bet on the exact tech level of two anti-space rocket emplacements…

  • TL 8 or less for it = Green. Go for it!
  • TL 9 = Yellow. Think about it!
  • TL 10 = Red. Forget about it!

…has just as much import as the decision of the Argentines to attack Royal Navy ships (the  flashy distraction), instead of the civilian transport (the heart of the mission.)

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I was recently informed of WindyTV, which provides an amazing amount of information regarding our planet, projected on a global map. It is especially informative for sailors, with it’s current and wave data.

I wonder how quickly a scout team could set up a similar surveillance system for a newly discovered planet. Perhaps a week for a large division of 10,000 field scouts, with ~100 starships (including ~10 large ships, of roughly 10,000-ton region in size)?

How quickly could it be set up in wartime – the Solomani Rim War, say – when the invading force needs good, secure meteorological data ASAP? “And it would be nice if the enemy couldn’t knock down satellites as quickly as we put them out, hmm?”

That makes me think of cloud cover, and how it could be as important as mountains and shorelines for grav-based forces. Is it possible to hide three lift companies in the eye of a hurricane? It could be time to devise a rapid way to generate thick cloud cover… or take control of the planet’s weather control network (if any).

And is it possible to hide a particle accelerator bolt, so it looks just like a (greatly overpowered) lightning strike? When would this be useful, if ever?

Typically, weather manipulation is seen as heavy capital investment, not easily shifted from one world to another. But the ability to create local weather patterns could be interesting: we all know what happened to Napoleon and Hitler. Also of note is the kamikaze wind – typhoons that destroyed the Mongol invasion of Japan… twice.

A portable quick’n’dirty weather creation system could be of some value to an invading force.

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Tanks and Recon Insertions

Italian tanks make good inspiration, for Referees who are looking to present the PCs with some bizarre battlefield equipment, to use (flee!) or to fight (near-guaranteed victory!)

The use of helicopters for recon team insertions could be very helpful to military-minded Referees and PCs.

Some adjustments will be needed, when replacing helicopters with air/rafts, G-carriers, armoured shuttles, and drop troops, but at least the basis for some good Traveller military doctrine is available here.

(Grav belt troops are a different kind of fish, though – the ability to get airborne at will is a serous game-changer!)

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Wild Jumps

Wild Jumps is a pleasant, pay-what-you-want 15-page expansion on the idea of misjumps.

Yes, it’s called ‘wild jumps’ in this non-Traveller supplement — it’s meant for the Uncharted Worlds universe — but you know what the author meant.

The book has a set of mechanics for the aftereffects of a wild jump, what can interfere with and redirect such a jump, and even the idea of an intentional wild jump. There is also a mid-stage between a regular jump and a wild jump, called a rough jump.

The chapter “Finding Your Way Home” is rather brief for my taste, and the Referee will have to flesh it out for use in his campaign.

A decent purchase as an idea-sparker, and the premises can be quite promising for a Scout campaign!

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Military Memes

“Here’s a picture of me with two Apaches!”


Obviously, that header is untrue… but the joke made me smile.

I can definitely see a truly vast number of exotic locations across the Imperium — lots of amazing star clusters, ringed gas giants, cratered landscapes, grav cities, exotic megafauna — all with a blacked-out soldier at the foreground, with the claim “that’s me!”

It will have to be Imperial Army, though: Imperial Marines wear battledress, and it isn’t as funny if the man in the foreground is wearing a faceless helmet…


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Here is the House You’ll Live in Tomorrow


In my most upbeat, cheerful mood, this is what I see Traveller as.

And, to be honest, there are quite a number of worlds which are at peace for long stretches of time, and blessed with a near-garden world, slightly tainted environment — more likely an irritant or a gradual, low-dosage poison (the equivalent of cigarette smoke, say) — which are able to set up these kinds of homes for the average middle-class family.

With the ground cars, it’s tempting to set it up at TL 8/9, but Traveller antigrav is expensive, so the cars can stick around all the way to TL 15, depending on the perceived need and status of air/rafts. The more interesting question is if those cars are driven my humans or by themselves…

Sadly, most worlds in the Empty Quarter are more influenced by the communal bunker mentality: the full-fledged interstellar tribal wars of earlier centuries have settled down to the occasional, small-scale dust-up by 993 Imperial — see Stellar Reaches #12, page 15 ff, and  Stellar Reaches #26, “Basil Tribulation”, pages 63-65 — but you still have to keep an eye on the envious neighbours, and interstellar piracy is still a real issue.

“This is why you don’t get nice things.”

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Worthy Ideas from a Commenter

After being tied up for a while, I got a break – and a set of insights from a regular commenter. Time to get out of my own balloon-sized head, and see things from a different set of eyes…

From the Fighting Attitude comment:

Yeah, happy, happy Imperium. We are all one family, come sing the Vilani version of “Kumbaya” which I think translates as:

We are bland, so bland, so very very bland.
We are beige, so beige, so very very beige.
Boring is good, Boring is great,
Boring stops things from escalate(ing)

This is hilarious. 

I am sure that the (less genocidally minded) Vilani actually does this – or a really similar equivalent – all across the Imperium. Fortunately, most Mixed Vilani/Solomani are not as bloody-minded as the denizens of the Empty Quarter: couple this with the real profits of (some level of) peace and prosperity, and it actually works… most of the time.

Also: “Bland is Safe, Bland is Predictable, Bland is Corporate, Bland is Profitable!” In-universe, Bland is the Imperial Way…. officially.

(This does not mean any disrespect to the major publishers of Traveller: they just want to make a buck, not spark a war, and Keeping Things Bland helps with the money-making. “Why should we tell the gaming groups what to think, when we can put up a set of loosely-tied details, and let the Referee and the PCs project what’s really in their heart?”

As to what’s in the heart of this writer, as displayed in his Empty Quarter write-ups… well, it might be best to just shiver a little and quickly move on…

I heartily support the publisher’s decision – “More Money means More Traveller!” – it’s just that I have a different road to travel.)

Of course, the Middle East is hard-core anti-Bland, and it’s this ridiculously important patch of desert that’s the spiritual ancestor of the Empty Quarter. Which makes me wonder about alien visitors to the Middle East.

Assuming the demonic, pure evil alien visitor avoids getting stoned to death or beheaded, it would be an absolutely fascinating place to investigate. Just try to avoid getting Jerusalem Syndrome, and coming back home a world-historical prophet with blazing eyes and a voice that absolutely compels the obedience of billions…

Talk to anyone who was a US Mil brat overseas during the 60’s and 70’s. Japan, Germany, Philippines, even Iceland. Once you step off the reservation, the only support you have is your own family/group and your fists. I learned to use a bike as a shield at 8 years old.


This would be actually a highly interesting set of adventures. The PCs get to be a group of children tied to a Imperium-jumping military family, who get into all sorts of scrapes. Even in the closed, battle-brother world of the Imperial services, there are a good set of subtle (but very real) set of conflicts and competitions:

  • not only the legendary Vilani/Mixed Vilani/Solomani business,
  • but the (massive, but often ignored) human vs Everyone Else business,
  • human vs Vargr Charisma clashes (and the various small-scale personality cults)
  • Sector vs Sector,
  • Major World vs Major World,
  • Noble House vs Noble House,
  • Noble vs Commoners,
  • Old Military Families vs the Conscripts vs the New Military Families
  • Corporate vs Corporate,
  • Vilani Ritualism vs Stellar Divinity vs Abrahamic vs Dharmic business,
  • Male vs Female (You’d be surprised how widespread patriarchalism is within the Imperium: “It’s not just for the Bwap and the Arabs anymore!”)
  • Garden worlders vs Hostile Worlders vs Habitat types
  • Traditionalist vs Modernists (and “Which Tradition? Which Modernity?”)

And we haven’t even left the school base yet!

Fortunately, most everyone really does want to get along, and most everyone really does support the Emperor and a unified Imperium, so there is actually a decent foundation to work on. A general willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt – coupled with lots and lots of work, to insure the devil doesn’t get the idle hands and bored minds he’s looking for – helps to keep the peace.

(This is true even in the Imperial military services of the Empty Quarter – post-Hebrin Rebellion, anyways. See “Brevet Commodore Baron Jadeep Upadhayay, Imperial Navy”, Stellar Reaches #24, page 5 ff for my take on the subject.)

Step off the base, and things get more dicey.

Not so much in the Imperial Core, and strongly pro-Imperial worlds: families who directly serve the Emperor are likely to be looked up to.

But outside of the safe worlds, where “wealthy and powerful outsiders” are viewed with a mild suspicion at best, and open hatred at worst… “stick together, and be careful out there.”

(And then, there are always the Blood Vargr cubs. Even the (very) few whose parents serve the Emperor are educated separately from the other youth. “A five-year old Suedzuk cub is a very, very, very different thing from a five-year old human child.”

With a taste for wandering in packs, and in-born hunter/killer instincts.

If I was a scout, I would make it a point to collect Long Night tales about people wandering around in the wrong part of the woods, when the Vargr Pillaging was still in the upswing and raiding Blood Vargr had a solid tech advantage over the local humans. “Good thing I wasn’t planning to sleep tonight.”)

From the other Fighting Attitude comment:

Argh. the point I was trying to make before my computer dropped the center section was that the veneer of ‘oneness’ only goes so far. Inherently, the total control and Vilani-ness only exist where the mega-corps and the imp-gov have their heavy boot on the neck of the people.

And that comment was supposed to be followed by the comment about growing up as Mil-Brat overseas.

I tend to be more softer than the Respected Commentator, mainly because I think the Imperium is. Long-lasting empires like to reduce costs and general hostility, and putting your muscle behind money, trade, traditions, familial & corporate alliances, enlightened self-interest, and – yes – certain bribes, corporate payoffs, and subsidies (including all those subsidized traders…), is just plain cheaper than a massive internal security establishment.

I could certainly be wrong here, and I am well aware on just how thin that veneer of civilization is.

But note that his comment is actually rather accurate for the Six Subsectors… but the entire region is a weird cultural outlier vis-a-vis the other Imperial sectors.

“You mean they actually value something HIGHER than MONEY?!?” – the solid majority of visiting Imperial corporate executives, just before going into catatonic shock.

The power of the megacorporations is definitely thinner in the Six Subsectors than elsewhere in the Imperium: The Vilani and the Bwap-dominated systems are strong corporate centres, but in general, the rest of the region really does prefer poverty and independence to wealth and subservience.

Outside of the legendary Tukera Lines — see Stellar Reaches #12, “The Grand Tour”, page 22-23; Stellar Reaches #24, “Ekatan Korpal, Megacorporate Officer”, page 53-54,  Stellar Reaches #25, “Demari Penniver”, page 37 ff — the megacorporate leadership simply can’t face the Outside Context challenge, and quietly slink back to the far more profitable, and far less insane, regions of the Imperium.

“Far more profitable, and far less insane, regions of the Imperium”
Anywhere else in the Imperium. Possibly, Charted Space.”)

From The Stockpile

That would require the tribal peoples not to be destroying infrastructure right and left that would allow the refining of those same raw materials.

That would be nice, for a start. No, I won’t be holding my breath… *sigh*

(But, if you are roleplaying in the 1105 Empty Quarter, you might actually see the local tribals working together. Even if you assume that the Wahhabi lunatics never change – a good bet – they are easier to handle & ignore if they are just throwing rocks at starships on a few desert worlds.

For all the important positions, replace the Jihadi with the more urbane and well-read Brotherhood guys — who are more interested in fleecing Infidels than killing them, have some concern with good public relations, and are not so eager to turn everyone into a hostile, no-compromise enemy — and you can finally get some infrastructure built. See modern Turkey as an example…)

I see a shift from open air storage to more underground and cave storage (much like what we see in Afghanistan now) for storage of critical materials. Family (meaning well armed and defended) compounds over the access points to these stockpiles would be the key for maintaining control (and ownership) of the materials.

I always did like underground operations right across all Traveller cultures, simply due to the rise of air/rafts and viable anti-gravity platforms. But anyways…

And I can’t imagine how a factory would work in the EQ. How much budget is allocated for defensive purposes? Do they rent the local armed forces for perimeter defense? (I envision factories built like the reactor that the Israelis bombed, behind 20 meter berms and so forth.)

The Respected Commentator had a better understanding of modern fortifications that I do, so I bow to his expertise…

From Moon Invasion

But let the godlike spaceman get drunk and wander away from his/her/its protective barrier and it will be like the Portugese captain against the Christian Samurai in the Shogun mini-series.

(For those of you who don’t remember or, ah, are too young to have seen it, Captain pulls pistol at our hero and suddenly notices 2 arrows protruding from his chest, through his armor. Oops.)

An interesting point!

Certainly, the low-tech Emptyheads have rough’n’ready ways to deal with (comparatively) high-tech Vargr raiders. And almost every local world can produce reasonably accurate firearms and artillery of the 1950s (TL 5) level: a good bolt-action rifle is way more dangerous than arrows, and a lucky anti-armour artillery round can sting a thin-skinned starship…

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Moon Invasion

Even against a Tech Level 10 trader, those archers aren’t going to go far.

Nevermind against a Tech Level…

Tech Level…

Ah, forget it. I’m putting it down to
“Legendary Vilani First Contact with Unknown Forces.”

There’s probably a small Imperial team still chasing down any known rumours, long-lost tales, and reality-defying artefacts tied to this ancient incursion on Vland.

Definitely not Ancient. An Ancient military force was far more likely to casually deflect arrows – or vaporize them in flight – then kill the attachers with one-shot, one-kill guided bullets to the head. Now, these guys come from a very different mindset…

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Cargos, and Home Port


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

 — John Masefield

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The Stockpile

From Zero Hedge:

Jeff Henderson, President of a U.S. trade group known as the Aluminum Extruders Council, took note of the shift in Chinese exports to Mexico and decided to dig a little deeper.  As such, he commissioned a plane to flyover a “small” factory in Mexico and, to his great “shock,” found about 6% of the entire world’s inventory of aluminum sitting in the middle of the Mexican desert covered in tarps.

Two years ago, a California aluminum executive commissioned a pilot to fly over the Mexican town of San José Iturbide, at the foot of the Sierra Gorda mountains, and snap aerial photos of a remote desert factory.

He made a startling discovery. Nearly one million metric tons of aluminum sat neatly stacked behind a fortress of barbed-wire fences. The stockpile, worth some $2 billion and representing roughly 6% of the world’s total inventory—enough to churn out 2.2 million Ford F-150s or 77 billion beer cans—quickly became an obsession for the U.S. aluminum industry.

Aluminum-industry representative Jeff Henderson says he is convinced that China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., a Chinese aluminum giant controlled by billionaire Liu Zhongtian, tried to evade U.S. tariffs by routing aluminum through Mexico to disguise its origins, a tactic known as transshipping.

Aluminum Stockpile

A stockpile of a million tons of metal – aluminum, steel, anything of good tensile strength and conductive to electricity, really – would make you stinking rich in the metal-poor worlds of the Empty Quarter.

Well, until the major, high-tech Ikonic pirates corporations hear of it, anyways.

When they make their move, there’s a decent chance that they’ll try to seed the crime scene with clues that point to a tribal enemy of the planetary government. For example, if the stockpile is on an Arab Muslim world, they’ll plant (very convincing, high-quality, TL E+) evidence that’ll point to an East Indian Hindi world.

Partly, it’s just covering your tracks.

Partly, it’s because the Vilani & Vargr thieves from Ikon have been infested by the hatey-hate attitudes of the Middle East local Solomani, and simply want to watch the True Humans slaughter each other, as they laugh in comfort on the wealthiest world of the sector.

It is said that pious, God-fearing men need to be extra-careful, or Satan will take great delight in turning them into a repulsive mockery of the holy, noble, righteous image they have of themselves. An Imperial Scout could add that the same warning applies to pious, God-fearing cultures, worlds, and sectors, as well.

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