There is a long history of SF novels about interstellar free traders eking out a marginal existence on the fringes of the huge trader corporations, from Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels to the Space Angel series by John Maddox Roberts. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "ECONOMY", "FREE TRADERS", "PIRACY", "REPLICATOR", "TRADE" and "TRADE FEDERATION". Don't forget the entry in this website about Cargo Holds

As mentioned below, if you want to play around with interstellar trading, or even try doing a full simulation (to do worldbuilding for creating the background of your new novel), I'd suggest getting a copy of GURPS Traveller: Far Trader. Written with help from a real live economist, this allows one to model interplanetary and interstellar trade with equations and everything. It has detailed analysis of the economics of interstellar trade, and a system of equations to model trade routes and economic demands.

Late breaking news: a programmer who goes by the handle of Makhidkarun has made a Python software library implementing the GURPS Traveller: Far Trader "gravity trade model" to generate trade routes (alas, to use this one has to be proficient in the Python computer programming language). There are some notes here.

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

From LOCKSLEY HALL by Alfred lord Tennyson (1835)

Economics of Starships

This section is basically a rough outline of Rick Robinson's Interstellar Trade: A Primer. You'd probably be better off reading the full article but some people want executive summaries. Rick starts with certain assumptions and follows them to various conclusions about the interstellar economy. You can alter some of the assumptions yourself to tweak the economy to suit your science fictional background.

Merchant Starship Costs

Assumption: starships in the interstellar empire are equivalent to present-day jet airliners. They go fast, can carry lots of people and cargo, and are the most advanced technology that can be massed produced.

The ticket prices will not be similar between airliners and starships because FTL interstellar travel will probably take more than a few hours for the trip. Therefore the starships will do fewer trips per year than airliners, so the starship passenger ticket price (and cargo waybill) will have to cover a larger share of the starship's yearly expense.

For comparison purposes we need an airliner's average cost of running, but the corporations are remarkably closed-lipped about that. Using a long series of estimations whose details can be found in Rick's article he concludes that the annual operating cost for an airliner is about $30 million (not counting fuel, landing fees, and taxes). An airliner's purchase price is $100 million so one year's uses costs about one-third of the purchase price.

A cargo jet can carry 50 tons so its purchase price is about $2 million per ton of cargo capacity.

Assumption: starships are strictly orbit-to-orbit, they use space ferrys to transfer passengers and cargo between the starship and the planet.

Assumption: starship purchase price will only be about $1 million per ton of cargo capacity instead of $2 million, because starships are orbit-to-orbit, need no landing gear, need no wings, can use lighter structure because they accelerate under 1 g, and we will assume they can carry twice as much cargo per deadweight (inert mass) as a cargo jet.

Assumption: cargo starship operating cost is similar to cargo jet. Therefore it costs $300,000 per ton of cargo capacity per year to run a cargo starship. This ignores taxes, station docking fees, and fuel. Assumption: starship fuel is cheaper than cargo jet JP-4 fuel. Big assumption since JP-4 is about $1.39 per gallon.

(ed note: starships are going to require lots of infrastructure.)

Assumption: the service life of a merchant starship is 30 years. So the starship initial purchase price is about 1/10th of the overall lifetime service cost ($1 million / (30 * $300,000)). Actually it will be closer to 1/5th due to the interest on the purchase loan. With creative maintenance, the service life might be longer than 30 years, see below.

Question: how many cargos can a merchant starship carry in 1 year? That is, assuming a full cargo turnover at each port of call, how many one-way runs can the ship make?

Assumption: a one-way trip takes three months. From departure planet orbit to FTL flight to arrival planet orbit. This is comparable to the Age of Sail.

Assumption: each trip requires one month for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, buying new cargo for the next run.

This makes each trip four months from departure to departure, or three cargos per year. This means the ship owner must earn $100,000 of profit per ton of cargo. That is, selling price at destination MINUS purchase price at origin must be $100,000 or more. Therefore if the cargo was available for free at the origin the minimum selling price at destination is $100,000 per ton, or $100 per kilogram. The implication is that only very high value cargo can be profitably shipped interstellar.

Assumption, average of 1/2 of retail price goes to shipping cost. Therefore the minimum price of interstellar imported goods are $200 per kilogram.

The implication is that the only things shipped interstellar would be luxury goods, items with a very high value per weight. Jewelry, spices, fine liquor, designer-label clothing. Maybe some high value per weight industrial goods, such as microchips. Not high mass items such as sports car, not with a $100,000 shipping charge added to the car's price. Bottom line is that you are not going to ship bulk goods like wheat, not at $100,000 per ton you ain't.

Assumption: the Gross Planetary Product (GPP) of a colony planet is $100,000 (about three times that of present day USA). If 2% of citizen income goes to imported luxuries and high-value capital goods, it comes out to $2000 per capita, with $1000 going to shipping cost.

Assumption: Colony planet population is 10 million. Therefore the total shipping cost of imported goods is $10 billion.

Calculating backwards, this implies that 100,000 tons of interstellar cargo arrives at the colony planet annually. The colony must export the same amount or it will run a trade deficit and import prices will rise. This is because if they don't export, the cargo starships cannot find cargoes to transport and sell at the next destination. Starships with empty cargo holds cost nearly as much to run as with full holds. They will have to make up the shortfall somehow, so they will raise the price of what they sell at this planet.

Take simplest model: two planets trading with each other. Each year, 100,000 tons moves in each direction, or 200,000 tons total.

Assumption: average cargo starship carries 1000 tons. This is less than seagoing cargo ships, but more than cargo airplane. This means there has to be 200 annual cargo loadings and unloadings to accommodate 200,000 tons.

Since each ship can make 3 one-way legs per year, then each ship will do three loadings. The implication is that the two planet's combined merchant fleet is between 65 to 70 ships.

Of course if each ship carries more than 1000 tons then fewer ships are needed. If the ships can carry 5000 tons then you would only need 13 or 14 ships. In practice this would not work very well, since the larger the cargo hold, the more difficult it is to find enough cargo on the planet to fill it.A trade network of a dozen colony worlds will support a few dozen to a few hundred cargo ships depending upon cargo hold size.

Passenger Traffic

Airliners carry about four to five passengers per ton of equivalent cargo capacity. However airliner trips are only a few hours. Interstellar passengers cannot live in their seats for three months.

Assumption: Each interstellar passenger berth equals one ton of equivalent cargo capacity. This includes the passenger, their baggage, the berth, apportioned galley/diner space, and food.

The direct result is that the cost of the passenger ticket is the same as the cost of one ton of cargo: $100,000. You are not going to get much tourist traffic, not at those prices. A few rich people and business travellers.

Problem: you must have large scale passenger traffic for the colony network to exist at all. In a word: Colonization.

$100,000 per colonist is prohibitive. Probably several times that for extra stuff like tractors and horses. Even worse, since the new colony will not have any exports, the cargo starship will have not cargo buy for the next trip. So the starship captain will have to charge round-trip prices for a one-way trip. It could total to around $1 million per colonist.

The problem is that our assumptions have made it so that only millionaires can afford the ticket, but millionaires do not want to go live on some jerkwater frontier world. Sending 10,000 colonists to a new world could cost $10 billion, which is a huge amount for private industry or governments to spend, regardless of the potential value of the planet.

Our price schedule has made interstellar colonization unlikely in the first place.

We will have to change some of the assumptions. Lucky for us, there is some room to bring the costs down. We can make the merchant starships cheaper, or make them faster. We shall do both.

Assumption: annual starship service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, not $300,000. This is reasonable, since starships are not stressed as much as airliners (at least not orbit-to-orbit starships).

Assumption: starship purchase price is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity instead of $1 million, since starships are build for long-haul reliability.

With the 30 year service life, the purchase price is now 1/6th of the total lifetime service cost instead of 1/10th. Within interest payments this may be closer to 1/3th.

Assumption: a one-way trip takes 35 days instead of three months. This means the cargo starship can deliver 10 cargoes per year instead of three. Assume 27 days is transit, 8 days is for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, and buying new cargo for the next run.

Crunching the numbers, the minimum profit per ton of cargo or passenger ticket is now $10,000 instead of $100,000.

The cost for colonists (provisions and no return cargo) is probably about $100,000 or less. That's more like it. In the reach of the middle class. This price schedule makes interstellar colonization viable.

Note that the same ten-fold cost reduction can be had by making the one-way trip 12 days but keeping the original $300,000 annual cost.

Our colonization-viable starships will also increase interstellar trade. Shipping cost of $10,000 per ton means the threshold cost of imported goods is about $10 per pound. Only $10,000 shipping cost for a sports car. But no bulk cargo, not when oil's shipping cost will be $1500 per barrel. As with all freight the rates will vary. Higher value merchandise will support higher shipping charges. A long-term fixed contract (allowing ship owner to have dependable regular cargoes) will get a lower rate. Standby cargo will get a better rate, if the ship is making a run anyway, it is better to have full cargo holds.

If imports are still only 2% of CPP, the volume of goods will increase ten-fold. The shipping capacity will only have to increase three-fold since starships now deliver three times as much cargo per year. Since shipping costs ten times lower (so a wider range of goods are worth importing) then the import-export sector can expand in total value of goods shipped as well.

Assumption: an inverse square-root rule applies here, so reducing the shipping costs by a factor of 10 will increase spending upon imported goods by a factor of 3.

This means 6% of CPP now goes to imports. High, but not out of reach for a mature trading zone. So a colony of 10 million will have an annual export and import of 3 million tons per year.

Each trade starship can pick up and deliver 10 cargoes per year, so they need a net cargo capacity of 300,000 tons. For a trade network of 12 colonies, the combined merchant marine needs a capacity of some 3.6 million tons. Most ships will still be small (but bigger than jumbo jets) to facilitate filling their cargo holds, but the heaviest-traffic routes will support some bigger ships.

Assumption: say the trade network's merchant fleet is:

Type of shipNumber
of ships
Cargo capacity
of one ship
Total cargo capacity
Large7520,000 tons1,500,000 tons
Medium3005000 tons1,500,000 tons
Small4001500 tons600,000 tons
TOTAL7753,600,000 tons

If there is no FTL radio, then some of the small freighters will sacrifice cargo capacity for speed (i.e., acceleration), in order to become something like an interstellar FedEx or pony express. The idea is to reduce the normal space transit time. Actually this might be a better job for an unmanned drone, they can take higher acceleration than human beings.

Passenger traffic is only a fraction of total cargo volume (unless there is a colonization effort underway). Freight makes a profit for somebody, passengers are pure expense to whoever pays their ticket. Perhaps passengers are 1% of total volume, makes 360,000 passengers per year. A few routes may support scheduled passenger service (probably in small ships). But most will ride in cargo bays (like railroad sleeping cards), in freighters, or in spare crew quarters.

Ship mass and size

Full load mass and physical size depends upon assumptions about fuel mass ration, fuel bulk, etc.


Deadweight (inert mass)117%
Cargo (payload)233%
Fuel (propellant)350%

Note that total mass is three times the cargo capacity. As you can see, deadweight is the ship proper, structure, engines, anything that is not cargo or propellant.

With this assumption, the big freighters will have a fully loaded mass of 60,000 tons. The largest ships might be twice as big: 120,000 tons.

Our building cost is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes a building cost equal to $1 million per ton of deadweight. Annual service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes the annual service cost equal to $200,000 per ton of deadweight. The starship hulls are not cheaper, but they can carry more cargo in proportion to their structural mass.

Type of shipCargo capacityPurchase price
Large20,000 tons$20 billion
Medium5000 tons$2.5 billion
Small1500 tons$750 million

At $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, largest giant freighter cost $20 billion to build, but it it has a cargo capacity of 200 Boeing 747 jets, and accounts for over one percent of whole fleet's cargo capacity all by itself. Small freighter costs $750 million, and has seven time the capacity of 747.

With a 30 year service life, the combined shipbuilding yards of the 12 planet trade network will turn out about 25 ships per year.

Hulls will last longer than 30 years but the equipment wears out and has to be replaced. Ships go back to the yards for an overhaul every decade or so, but eventually the cost of stripping everything and replacing it will exceed the value of the ship. Depending upon overhaul costs the shipyards may make more money on rebuilding than on constructing brand new ships. Some ships will stay in service for many decades. Others will be retained as the futuristic equivalent of naval hulks or the old passenger equipment that railroads use as work trains. Every big commercial space station will have a bunch of these old ships in the outskirts.

If modular design is taken to its limit, "ships" will have no permanent existence. Instead they will be assembled out of modules and pods specifically for each run, much like a railroad train. In that case, a ship's identity is attached to a service, not a physical structure. Example: the Santa Fe "Chief" was identified by a timetable and reputation, not a particular set of locomotive and cars.

Starship Performance

The analysis up until now focused on money and economics. Businessmen only care about how long it takes to deliver the cargo and how much transport costs, they could care less about the scientific details of the ship engines. But authors care.

As with everything else, it all depends upon the assumptions. Your assumptions will be different, so feel free to fiddle with these and see what the results are.

Assumption: the time spent in FTL transit is zero (jump drive). For the FTL segment of the transit you can use whatever you want, as long as the details do not affect the analysis. The main thing is that the required time spent in FTL transit will add to the total trip time, and thus the number of cargoes a starship can transport per year.

Assumption: starships use reaction drives for normal space travel.

We know that the mass ratio is 2.0. So the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation tells us that the starship's total delta V will be the propulsion system's exhaust velocity times 0.69 (i.e., ln(2.0) ). Since starships accelerate to half their delta V, coast, then decelerate to a halt, their maximum speed is half their delta V, or exhaust velocity times 0.35 (i.e., ln(2.0) / 2). In practice you would accelerate up to a bit less than half their delta V in order to allow a fuel reserve in case of emergency.

It will be even less if the FTL drive happens to use the same type of fuel that the reaction drive does. Basically part of the fuel mass will have to be considered as cargo, not propellant, which will alter the ship's mass ratio.

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
Nuclear powered Ion~100 km/s
Fusiona few thousand km/s
Beam core matter-antimatterabout 100,000 km/s
( 1/3 c )

We have assumed that the ship spends 27 days in route (with an instantaneous FTL jump), so the outbound and inbound legs are 13.5 days each (1.17 million seconds).

Assumption: the acceleration on each leg is constant. In reality at the same thrust setting the acceleration will increase as the ship's mass goes down due to propellant being expended. The thrust will probably be constantly throttled to maintain a constant acceleration. Makes it easier on the crew and easier on our analysis. The implication is that obviously the average speed will be half the maximum speed (which is half the delta V)

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
leg distance
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400 km/s130 km/s75 million km
(1/2 AU)
0.01 g
Advanced Fusion10,000 km/s5000 km/s20 AU
0.44 g
c0.3 c350 AU
(x5 Pluto's orbit)
8 g !!!

These figures will be lower if time is consumed in FTL flight, maybe be only Terra-Luna distance

Propulsion system's thrust power is thrust times exhaust velocity, then divide by 2. To get the thrust, we know that thrust is ship mass times acceleration. The ship mass goes down as fuel is burnt. As a general rule for ship mass, figure that it only has 2/3rds of a propellant load. That is, multiply the total ship mass by 0.83. So our 120,000 metric ton ship would have a general rule mass of 120,000 * 0.83 = 100,000 metric tons (100,000,000 kilograms).

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
ThrustThrust power
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400,000 m/s
(400 km/s)
0.108 m/s
(0.011 g)
1.08×107 N2.16×1012 W
(2 terawatts)
Advanced Fusion10,000,000 m/s
(10,000 km/s)
4.3 m/s
(0.44 g)
4.3×108 N2.15×1015 W
(2,000 terawatts)
3.0×108 m/s
76.5 m/s
7.65×109 N1.15×1018 W
(1 million terawatts)

Where does fuel come from and who does it get into the ship's fuel tanks? Easiest if it is obtained locally at the destination's solar system. The economics of interplanetary transport is same as interstellar (since we did a lot of work making interstellar a cheap as interplanetary).

if fuel from a gas giant at a distance comparable to Terra-Jupiter and round trip is to only take weeks, interplanetary tankers will need speeds of around 1000 km/s. So tankers will be almost as expensive as starships. If tankers use low speed (to make them cheaper), the round trip balloons to a year or more. To service the starship fleet's thirst for fuel, tankers will need to be huge or there will have to be a lot of them. Either way, fuel shipped from gas giants ain't gonna be cheap.

If we forgo interplanetary tankers and instead have starships make extra leg to the local gas giant to refuel, it will cost you more than you will save.

The alternative is shipping fuel up from destination planet. Yes, we know about how surface to orbit is "halfway to anywhere" in terms of delta V cost. But in order to colonize space at all, surface-to-orbit shipping cost will have to be cheap anyway. The industrialization of space will start with using space based resources, but eventually surface-to-orbit will have to be cheap or there is no rocketpunk future. Laser launch, Lofstrom loop, space elevator, something like that.

Assumption: surface-to-orbit shuttle economics are equivalent to current day airliner economics. Round trip to LEO and back is about two hours (not counting loading/unloading). With loading/unloading and maintenance, figure 4 flights a day. Implication is that a round trip passenger ticket is $250 and round trip freight service is $1000/ton (which is +10% added to interstellar transport costs)

Fuel is not round trip, it only goes from surface to orbit, but shuttles have to go orbit to surface in order to get the next load. You will have to streamline the process. High capacity pumps to minimize load/unload times, crew-less shuttle. You might be able to squeeze fuel lift cost to $500/ton. So if starships carry 1.5 tons of fuel per ton of cargo, surface-to-orbit fuel lift costs adds $750/ton to interstellar shipping cost.

So total surface-to-orbit overhead is $1000/ton + $750/ton = $1750/ton or 17.5%. This is an ouch but not a show-stopper.

Back to starships. How big are they?

Present-day maritime tonnage rule: 1 registered ton = ~3 cubic meters.

Assumption: 1 ton = 3 m3 applies to fuel and hull (e.g., crew quarters, engineering spaces, etc) as well as cargo. Therefore, if the absolutely hugest cargo starship in service has a cargo capacity of 40,000 tons (twice that of a large cargo starship), then:

Wet Mass
Payload mass to total mass ratio is 3. So wet mass is 3 * 40,000 = 120,000 tons
Starship Volume
1 ton of total ship mass = 3 m3 of volume. 120,000 * 3 = 360,000 cubic meters.

Volume of a sphere is 4/3πr3, so the radius of a sphere is 3√(v/(4/3π)) or

radius = CubeRoot( v / 4.189)

diameter = (CubeRoot( v / 4.189)) * 2

Assumption: a "cigar-shape" for a spacecraft is a six times as long as it is wide, with the proportions indicated in the diagram above. The center body is a cylinder 1 unit in diameter (0.5 units radius) and two units high. The two end caps are cones of 0.5 units radius and 2 units high.

If the monstrous cargo starship is spherical, it would have a diameter of 88 meters. If it is cigar shaped then length = 300 meters and diameter of 50 meters.

A 1500 ton cargo capacity tramp freighter would have a wet mass of 4500 tons and a volume of 13,500 m3. Spherical shape would have a diameter of 30 meters, cigar shaped length = 100 meters long and diameter of 17 meters.

Modular ships dimension would be similar but a bit larger due to being assembled out of component parts.


This is very difficult to estimate.

Since each crew has same berthing requirement as passengers, each crew represents one ton = $100,000/year in lost revenue capacity. Therefore crew will be kept as small as practical.

Operating crew: pilot-navigator and engineer for each watch. Plus life support specialist/medic, cargo-master, and captain. Total of nine. Small ships might squeeze this to four or five. Big ships might double up with assistants and trainees for 20 to 25.

Maintenance technicians will be needed. Ships are en route for a month or so at a time. Unlike aircraft, maintenance can't all be done during layovers. Time is money, you do not want to hold off departure because station tech has not finished some routine servicing. So techs will be carried to do maintenance during the flight. Assume (conservatively) 1 tech embarked per $100 million in construction cost (i.e., stuff to be maintained). So small ships will have a maintenance crew of seven or eight (total crew of ten or twelve). Largest ships in service might have total crews up to 250. Scut work (swabbing decks and peeling potatoes) will be done by junior crew. As has been the case since time began.

Hotel Staff: passenger-carrying ships will need crew for hotel-type services (stewards, chefs, etc.), but not if passengers are colonists (fend for yourselves, steerage scum!). Coach class could make do with one for every 10 passengers. First class would have one for every 2 or 3 passengers (and the ticket price would reflect this). If a typical ship has 1 percent of cargo given over to passengers, the required hotel staff could increase the crew by about a third. Naturally the hotel staff will be looked down upon by the operating and tech crew members. On a passenger ship the hotel staff will vastly outnumber the rest of the crew by some 30 to 1.

Orbital high ports

These are primarily starship ports and service bases, though they may have other functions.

With our current assumptions, at a given time 3/4ths of the ships are en route, the rest are in port. So at the stations of the dozen colony worlds there will be docked about 15 cargo ships. One or two would be large cargo ships. A cargo ship will arrive and depart about three times a day.

Orbit-to-surface traffic is heavy. If each shuttle can carry the load of a 747 jet, about 100 arrive and depart each day. If starship fuel is shuttled up from surface, some 150 daily tankers arrivals are needed as well (if 4 daily flights per shuttle, about 65 physical shuttles are needed).

This is for a typical station. The busiest station in the trade network might have twice the traffic volume.

At any one time we might expect to find 200 to 300 off-duty starship crew at a typical station (probably all in bars). Unlike airports, passenger traffic is small. 200 or so arrive and depart each day. Passenger shuttles will also carry station crew, ship's crew going sightseeing, so there will be a few daily passenger flights.

A station is a ship without a drive engine, so its capacities can be estimated the same way.

If 10% of the overall cost of the merchant fleet goes to support the stations (since the stations maintain the ships) then the stations taken together will have about a tenth of the fleet's deadweight mass, or 180,000 tons all told. A typical station would then have a mass of 15,000 tons, not counting cargo awaiting loading, fuel in storage tanks, etc. But stations are likely to grow by accretions over the years and become sprawling structures extending hundreds of meters in all directions.

Using same estimates for cargo ships, the maintenance crew of an average station would be about 150. However, stations provide the major ship maintenance, so they probably have about as many technicians altogether as the ships themselves do. They alone will multiply the station population by tenfold; support staff and miscellaneous services might double it again, so a typical station could have some 3000 workers. The largest stations might have two or three times as many.

Living quarters will be nearly as expensive ship quarters, but frequent shuttle fare also add up. The income from shuttle fare can be used to subsidize living quarters rent, so many people could live on board, even with families. Station could be a cosmopolitan orbiting town.

The entire space-faring population of the trade network, ship crews and stationers, come to well over 50,000, maybe as many as 100,000 (out of a total population on 12 colonies of some 120 million). The space economy as a whole however employs many times more. If the merchant marine industry accounts for 3% of the economy it will also employ 3% of the workforce, 2 million people. With a similar number employed in the import/export industries.


The expense of a trade-protection navy is an insurance premium charged against trade.

Assumption: the insurance premium to fund the navy is 10% of total value of trade.

Say the 12 colony network is a trade federation and the insurance premium for defense is 10% of total value of trade (this setup could just as well be one planet monopolizing trade, in which case the navy protects the franchise. We will call it a federation anyway). Half the value of trade goes to support the merchant fleet (the other half is initial purchase cost of shipped goods) therefore the cost of the war fleet will be about 1/5 of the merchant marine

Assumption: warships have the same relationship to cargo ships as cruisers do to ocean liners or jet bombers to airliners.

Instead of cargo, warships carry weapons, sensors, armor, more powerful engines, and greater fuel capacity. Ton for full-loaded ton they are more expensive than trade ships (maybe x2) but cost per deadweight ton is about the same since technology going into it is similar. (some present day warplanes have higher cost-to-mass ratio than jetliners. This is due partially to "gold-plating" of weapon systems and partial due to false economies such as small orders that reduce production efficiencies. We will assume that a navy funded by merchants will not allow such expensive stupidities)

Assumption: For first approximation, scale down merchant marine by factor of 5 to get war fleet.

  • 1 battlecruiser per 5 heavy freighters
  • 1 cruiser per 5 medium freighters
  • 1 corvette per 5 small freighters

This will give the following order of battle:

  • 15 battlecruisers
  • 60 cruisers
  • 80 corvettes

This may or may not be balanced, substitute as needed.

(ed note: for a discussion of what Rick Robinson means by those three ship classes see his analysis here)

Space navy combat starships will require auxiliary starships to support them: food supply ships, ammo and missile supply ships, repair ships, hospital ships, fuel ships, etc. So some of the cruisers and corvettes in the order of battle will have to be traded for auxiliaries of various kinds. Some civilian cargo ships can be requisitioned in wartime for auxiliary missions (such as tankers). Depending upon technology and threat level, it might be feasible to fit cargo ships with weapon pods instead of cargo and use them as armed merchant cruisers. And warships might be fitted with cargo pods to become very well-armed transports.

Assumption: a warship's deadweight mass is 1/3rd (0.33) of loaded mass (propellant always dominates a reaction-drive spaceship's mass). You could call the deadweight mass the Washington Treaty Mass.

Assumption: the following deadweight mass values in the following table.

Assumption: warships are always cigar shapes because Hollywood hates spheres

We have already assumed that purchase cost of a spacecraft is $1 million per ton of deadweight. We have also assumed that each ton of loaded mass equals 3 m3 of volume.

Result of assumptions:

Warship typeLoaded
Battlecruiser30,000 tons10,000 tons$10 billion90,000 m3200m × 30m
Cruiser7500 tons2500 tons$2.5 billion22,500 m3120m × 20m
Corvette2000 tons700 tons$700 million6000 m375m × 12.5m

Corvette are the length of a 747 or C-5 Galaxy but larger diameter. Very close to space shuttle in launch configuration. Since corvettes will have a surface landing module (for gunboat diplomacy) they may even look like space shuttle stack (with a big winged thing stuck on the side). Merchant express mail couriers might be a civilian version of courvette.

During peace time war fleet has lower operating tempo than merchant marine. May spend half their their time docked instead of the one-quarter that merchants do. This saves operating expenses. The savings allows greater procurement, so they are replaced and retired from active duty after 20 years instead of 30. Then they go into a mothballed reserve force for another 20 years, so reserve is the same size as active fleet. As with cargo ships, warships might undergo top-to-bottom overhauls and remain in service longer.

Crews are larger in proportion than for cargo ships. Operating crew will be augmented with offensive and defensive weapon controllers, scan/ECM, and communication/intelligence; larger ships will have in addition a command staff.

The maintenance technicians will be larger per unit cost because they have to repair battle damage, during or after the battle.

Of course there is no hotel staff.

Some warships will carry a landing force of marines or espatiers. Due to berthing cost and limited space (mass ratio of 2.0, remember?) there won't be many marines, but they will be highly trained (SEALS).

Warship typeCrew

Crew numbers will be higher if they have a landing strike team embarked

This is not a huge crew force. about 10,000 for the entire fleet, with probably a similar number on shore duty at any given time. Add in the marines and the total wearing uniforms is still no more than 25,000 to 30,000. Perhaps with a similar number of civilian employees.

Defense spending for running the fleet (by far the largest budget item) is a modest $72 billion, 0.6% of trade federation's combined GPP. In a prolonged major war this would expand greatly. But this is supported by trade. If the cost of trade protection (the insurance premium) approaches or even exceeds the value of trade itself, there will be a collapse of political support.

Operations in a trade war will be primarily in space. If large scale planetary landings are required, cargo ships can be pressed into service as troop transports. Light infantry is roughly equivalent to civil passengers: 1 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier. However heavier equipment, shuttles to carry troops/gear/provisions to surface, armed shuttles for close air support, will all be required. So for an invasion force, 3 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier, not counting the naval escort.

If 1/10th of the entire merchant marine is gathered as an invasion force it can transport and land 120,000 light troops, less if heavy equipment is required. But 120,000 troops is a pretty big force to invade a planet of 10 million people.

Middle-period Empire

Suppose instead of 12 worlds, the empire had a thousand worlds, each with a population of 100 million. Then all the above can be multiplied by a factor of over 800. Improved technology will increase size and number of ships. If typical ships is x3 in linear dimensions they will be x27 greater in mass, and fleet can have x30 as many of them.

Large cargo starships: if spherical 300m diameter, if cigar 1,000 km long. Cargo capacity 1 million tons. Full-load mass of 5 million tons each. Empire will have about 1000 ships of that size (and some larger). It will have 50,000 medium cargo ships with cargo capacity of 20,000 tons, and hundreds of thousands of smaller vessels.

Great hub-route stations will have population in the millions.

Navy battlecruisers will be 1 km long, full-load mass of 3 million tons. Build cost $1 trillion. Crew of 30,000. Empire will have 125 battlecruisers in the fleet. It will have thousands of cruisers with a full-load mass of 100,000 tons. Naval budget can be held down to $60 trillion.

Galactic Empire

100,000 worlds with average population of few billion each. The scale factor is another x3000. You can do the math yourself.


Naturally, to make interstellar trade work, you need the cost of interstellar transport to be incredibly low, or the value of the trade item to be incredibly high. Or both.

Raw minerals probably are not valuable enough, it will probably be cheaper to synthesize rare elements instead of shipping them in. As for manufactured goods, why not just send the blueprints by radio or by your Dirac Poweredtm FTL Ansible communicator? In a future where everybody has 3D printers and rapid prototyping machines, the economy would be based upon trading intellectual property.

Since there does not seem to be any real-world trade item worth interstellar trade (unless it is cheaper to ship from another star than it is from another city), you will probably be forced to invent some species of MacGuffinite.

In Larry Niven's PROTECTOR, asteroid miners prospect for magnetic monopoles (which are great for constructing compact motors and generators). Dr. Robert Forward proposed prospecting for Hawking black holes. In the old SPI game StarForce, the only valuable commodity is "telesthetic" women, who are the sine qua non of FTL travel, and who cannot be mass produced by genetic engineering. In Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, some of the main characters are traders contracted to transport part of a huge one-time pad for secure cryptographic transmissions (such a pad cannot be transmitted without compromising security). Sometimes humans and aliens discover that one man's trash is another man's treasure. And in Charles Stross' IRON SUNRISE, the most valuable things are packages of entangled quantum dots, used for FTL communication via Bell's Inequality (with the fascinating twist that the dots must be transported slower than light or they are ruined. They are shipped by Starwisp).


I will note that historically one of the most valuable trade goods was spices. Which cannot be 3D printed unless their resolution is atom-by-atom. Freaking black pepper was so valuable that it was used as collateral for loans, or even currency. In the 1400s the Italian monopoly on black peppercorns was the incentive behind the Portuguese effort to find an alternate route to India. Vasco da Gama managed to reach India by sailing around Africa, which would be a very uneconomical route except for the sky-high value of black pepper.


(ed note: This is about an adventure set in the medieval fantasy role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. But it could be adapted to a RocketPunk future, abet one that had very limited long-range communication. A setting during the Long Night after the fall of the galactic empire would do nicely.
The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

The Goblin and the Peppercorn

The Halfling Thief found the bag of peppercorns on the goblin’s body.

An argument ensued. The Fighter wanted to keep walking toward the ruins and fulfill their benefactor’s request. The ruins were full of treasure, he said. The party got to keep whatever they found as long as they killed the monsters and returned with the ruins secrets.

Peppercorns weren’t treasure. They were food.

But the Thief wanted to understand how this little bag of black spices ended up in the goblin’s pocket. Goblins don’t cook with peppercorns.

Black pepper makes the traditionally bland food of the region interesting and flavorful. When peppercorns appear in the market — rarely — people pay more gold for small bags than for major magic items. The poor crave them. The rich kill for them. Sure, this small bag of peppercorns is not a Cap of Underwater Breathing or a Potion of Heroism, but it can buy them. This bag is better than gold.

Can we indulge in Halfling curiosity? The ruins have been ruins for thousands of years. That’s why they’re called ruins. The secrets aren’t going anywhere.

When the Wizard and the Bard sided with the Thief, the Fighter caved. Fine. We will follow you on your so-called mystery. And then we will head to the ruins and discover some real secrets.

The goblin’s trail lead to the bandit’s massacred bodies not more than a day old and rotting in the open air. One bandit carried small, empty sacks smelling strongly of pepper and a letter of free passage on this road between the Lord of this land and the True and Free City Republic. From the look of the site, the goblins jumped the bandits while they were camping and cooking. Of course, the goblins ate the well-seasoned and peppered steaks.

The party left the bandit’s bodies to rot while promising the Fighter that he could massacre any future peppercorn-stealing bandits. They took the letter.

Further along the road by another two days (and the Fighter made noise about ruins and secrets) the party discovered the overturned carts, dead horses, and bodies of the traders. They were dressed in merchant’s red robes. The sacks were empty. The cargo stolen. But the Halfling Thief found a manifest of good and prices. Prices higher than the party could command for spelunking and murder expeditions.

Maybe the ruins could wait, the Fighter said.

The party buried the traders.

This land’s gold, the Halfling Thief said, was flowing east down this road to the Free City Republic. We, adventurers, root through ancient cellars and dig through old ruins, risking our lives and very souls, to haul out chest after chest of easy gold. We cheerfully hand that gold to rich merchant and wizard guilds in return for armor and baubles and magic. Lords wrest that gold from guilds by taxation. Then, those Lords send that gold down this road east in return for this.


Let’s follow the money, the Halfling Thief said. Let’s follow the peppercorns.

And we went east.

The Free-City Republic

The Free-City Republic stank. For all its glamour architecture and glorious history, humans demi-humans pressed together in the streets with little sanitation and less space. They climbed over each other for space on this tiny island nation. The temple entrances reeked of urine where supplicants voided themselves before climbing the steps. Merchants dumped their garbage into the streets.

The Transmuter Bankers, members of the mighty Exchanger’s Guild, ruled above the stench from their black towers and behind their long red masks. They were rarely seen but always felt. A Republic in name only, the immensely rich ruled this plutocracy with an iron fist in a velvet glove. They were more interested in their constant wars with the other Free City Republics ruled by other Transmuter Bankers than the daily government rhythms and wrapped themselves in bureaucracy.

Down on the streets, enormous customs houses squatted among the warehouses while armies of armed customs agents took their due. Long ships with short triangular sails bobbed in filthy waters while moored at a mile long dock. Thousands of merchants and porters unloaded their wares into a market of uncertain prices and taxation. Purchasing agents bartered loudly with street merchants for their Lord. Spices. Silks. Porcelain. Bails of cotton and linen. Ivory. Pearls. Cases upon cases of rare and precious magic reagents.

The Halfling Thief thrust her arms into a barrel of peppercorns, worth more than the land she was hired to serve, and drew in a deep breath. She asked how much.

“Only the Gods and Modrons know the prices of the day,” the peppercorn merchant told the Halfling Thief. “Today might be a good day. It might be a bad day. We don’t know until we sell.”

Pirates, horrible and wealthy, plied the profitable waters offshore. They preyed on lightly armed merchant ships and took their cut by force. Smugglers and a far flung powerful Thieves Guild made good use of sewers to avoid the customs house and the hated head tax. The Navy pushed out into waters to find more fertile trading grounds and pursue the Republic’s endless wars.

This was not the peppercorn’s source, the Halfling Thief said. This is the terminus. This is wonderful but merely the city where the merchants collect the land’s gold and send it further east. I want to find the source of the peppercorns. We should press onward.

But when she turned around, the Fighter was gone. He found his source of endless money, booty, magic items and glory far beyond mere run down ruins in a backwater country. He left to fight the pirates of this sea until he conquered them all and they acknowledged him as their King. He took the Ranger with him as backup. The Fighter wanted to make it a buddy movie.

Yet the Thief still had the Wizard, the Cleric and me, the bard.

And we went east.

The Old City

This old city at the desert’s edge was a relic of an ancient time. Once, it made its wealth by shipping grain north into great open markets of hungry cities. Now, by conquest, it shipped its grain south to less discerning and wealthy consumers. Its sand stone walls told stories of ancient battles and grand Kingdoms and the magnificent adventures of Murder Hobos long dead.

Centuries ago, this city ruled Empires. Centuries hence, its power forgotten, it would be shriveled, an open air theme park for tourists pretending to experience its grandeur and power. This city was fated fade, remembered for its art and music but not for its heroes and power. Its sewers infested with monsters and converted to adventuring dungeons. Its marvelous temples turned into adventuring ruins with dark secrets for rich rulers to plumb.

Thus was the power of trade. Far more powerful than any army, religion or ruler, trade builds empires binding together humans and demi-humans under one banner. And trade lays them to waste.

The old city was still a vibrant trading force. Its power had not completely leaked out its walls. The great camel caravans came in through the east gate. The merchants unloaded and made transactions with rapacious middle men. Dockworkers loaded precious cargo by the ton on the long ships and sent them west to the Free Cities to feed their endless wars. The tax men with their thugs roamed among the merchants taking their due for an Emperor thousands of miles away.

The open air markets were full of peppercorns. They were cheaper here than the dead merchant’s lists back home and cheaper still than the Free Cities. The Halfling Thief watched the peppercorns come in through the gate by camel and be delivered by the half ton to the merchant’s stall. Gold exchanged hands.

Gold still flowed east.

Comprehend Languages and Tongues helps with travel negotiations between cultures. Without the Fighter and Ranger, we were vulnerable to bandits but if we traveled down the river instead of overland and with other caravans we could make it east to the peppercorn source. Overland trade, we learned, was phenomenally dangerous. Outside, in the desert, banditry was tribal. If we flew the wrong colors, we would be forced to give bribes at best and attacked at worst.

The Halfling Thief ensured the caravans that our Wizard and Cleric would keep us safe.

The Thief turned to the Cleric but the Cleric was gone. Taken by the mash of cultures and nations passing through this trade city, she was determined to proselytize. What better place to create converts than a trade nexus between Empires? Even if she converted a handful, her God’s Word would spread far to new corners of the world. Her God would grow. What is better than a big, fat, well-loved God?

Yet the Thief still had the Wizard and me, the Bard.

And we went east.

The Ocean Market

The great oceanic trading city was made of magically bound sand. Enormous limestone and coral fortresses towered over a sprawling dock reaching across the horizon. Houses five stories high stood over packed market-filled streets. Impossibly thin golden minarets topped bright white temples of a strange God. The mash of cultures, languages and beings, many never seen in the Halfling’s land far away across a sea and a desert, pressed together in the great bazaar beneath the Sultan’s uncompromising eye.

And the market! The sights! The smells! Uncut rhinoceros and elephant horn of pure ivory. Bizarre animal skins. Gold stacked in bars. Huge towers of wax for candles and supplies. Enormous bushels of grains. Plates and bowls of purest white. Cloth so smooth it barely caressed the skin. Ambergris, pulled from the bellies of murdered whales, and fragrant incense. Brightly lacquered wood. Magic items with strange and new properties. Elaborately crafted magical weaponry and armor dyed bright colors and adorned with ostrich feathers. Endless shelves of rare magical reagents and jewels. Bizarre fruit. Slaves, driven to open air slave markets, by the thousands. Fragrant spices, including the peppercorn, heaped in enormous baskets in huge open air stalls. An unimaginable bounty from the nexus of trade.

Gold coins from a dozen unknown and distant lands passed through the Halfling Thief’s hands.

The Halfling Thief, with extensive help from Tongues and a bit of prodding with Detect Thoughts, asked about the origins of peppercorns. Did they come from this land? Is this the terminus of all our gold, our sweat, our tears, our hard work?

The merchants laughed. No, no, no. We bring great bushels of grain and these strange animals to the market. We supply incense and skins. We send wax and wood. But the peppercorns? The peppercorns come from the far east across the ocean on the other side of the monsoon winds. They come here on the bottoms of boats. See, the Westerner Agents will give us all their gold for the peppercorns we import at great cost.

How far?

Farther than the horizon, the merchants said. Farther than the sun and moon. But you can follow them, if you wish, on our boats held together with coconut twine and adorned with great lanteen sails. Board one of our great trading dhows and follow the rising sun. There, you will find the peppercorns where they grow wild and abundant on enormous vines. That is where your golden money flows, Halfling. Your source of infatuation, madness, and black gold lies over the sea.

A sailor on the open ocean has only one true companion: fear. Wizards help to keep the skies clear. Clerics of the storm and sea provide grace to the voyages. Past the shore pirates are not a threat but the sea itself kills. But even with prayers and spells, many voyages are lost with all hands. A trip across the sea was much more dangerous than a dungeon crawl through ancient ruins looking for lost secrets. But on the other side of the ocean, what secrets we will find!

The Halfling Thief turned to consult the Wizard about the voyage but the Wizard was gone. Seduced by the allure of new knowledge and new spells, the Wizard found his way into the city’s enormous libraries filled with thousands of books. Dazzled, the Wizard no longer had to crawl through filthy dungeons and dangerous ruins to learn new secrets. He had a lifetime of research here where spells came to him from all points of the world. He didn’t need to kill for this knowledge. He simply waited for it to be unloaded off ships from distant lands.

I asked the Halfling Thief if she was prepared for this journey. Our Fighter, Ranger, Cleric and Wizard were gone. We were all that was left. The voyage was long and dangerous. Who knew what we would find on the other side?

The Halfling said, how can a Bard turn down stories and adventure?

And we went east.

Writer’s Note: I’m an enormous fan of road stories and the Silk Road is the best road story in history. This one follows peppercorns over sea instead of over land simply because the sea route has fewer major stops. The cities involves are Venice (Italy), Alexandria (Egypt) and Mogadishu (Somalia). The influential Ajuran Sultanate of Eastern Africa is a huge, often unmined source for adventure and exploration. An easy way to get players out of their Western European adventures and into somewhere like that is to simply… follow the peppercorn.

From AND WE WENT EAST by multiplexer (2015)

“They’re a pygmy race—at least the Llor consider them so. And they are deadly—to anyone who tries to invade their territory. Use poison darts and mantraps. But whether we’re headed into Cos country now, I don’t know. And their quarrel may be only with the Llor—there’s always that hope. Anyway, we have no choice but to advance. And now you’re going to work, Karr.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You’re attached as Alien Liaison man from now on. Figure out what you need for a ‘first contact pack’ and get it together tonight. We’ll have no time in the morning and you must have the kit ready to use.”

Food— Almost all aliens had an innate curiosity about off-world food, especially if they lived in a rugged country on a near-starvation diet. And of all Terran foods there was one in particular which the Combatants always carried with them, one grown only on their native world, which most extraterrestrial life relished. Intersystem Traders had been trying to export it for years. But the Terrans had ruled it a military supply and so controlled its production—keeping it for the troops and a few of their favored alien friends. As a bargaining point it had been too precious to destroy back at the last camp. Their ration of it must be lashed on one of the carts he had helped to drag. He should ask the Medico for a supply.

Ornaments—the veterans had stripped their wealth from the dress uniforms. Each man would carry his own in a waist treasure belt. Kana must beg for the showiest pieces. Well, no time to lose. Neither Mic nor Rey owned anything worthwhile. But there was the whole camp to canvass.

Kana dropped his blanket wearily and started off on his task, his first quarry being the Medico. Crawfur heard his plea and then detached one of the small boxes from the nearest cart. Kana signed for a packet as big as his hand—a packet which would have brought the equivalent of a deputy-control officer’s pay for half a year had it been offered for sale in the black markets on half a dozen different planets.

And on hearing of the other need Crawfur unhooked one of the pockets of his own belt and contributed to the cause a Ciranian “sunstone” which drew light from a muffled lamp to make a warm pool of fire in the donor’s hand.

“Might as well take this. My neck’s worth more than that. Don’t hesitate to ask—we all know what we may be up against. Tal, Kankon, Ponay.” He roused his assis­tants and explained.

When Kana left the group he had the packet of sugar, the sunstone, a chain of Terran gold about a foot long, a ring made in the form of a Zacathan water snake, and a tiny orb of crystal in which swam a weird replica of a Poltorian lobster fish.

From STAR GUARD by Andre Norton (1955)

It was a little after noon, the calmest hour of Trenco’s day. The wind had died to “nothing”; which, on the planet, meant that a strong man could stand against it, could even, if he were agile as well as strong, walk about in it. Therefore Kinnison donned his light armor and was soon busily harvesting broad-leaf, which, he had been informed, was the richest source of thionite.

He had been working for only a few minutes when a flat came crawling up to him, and, after ascertaining that his armor was not good to eat, drew off and observed him intently. Here was another opportunity for practice and in a flash the Lensman availed himself of it. Having practiced for hours upon the minds of various Earthly animals, he entered this mind easily enough, finding that the trenco was considerably more intelligent than a dog. So much so, in fact, that the race had already developed a fairly comprehensive language. Therefore it did not take long for the Lensman to learn to use his subject’s peculiar limbs and other members, and soon the flat was working as though he were in the business for himself. And since he was ideally adapted to his idly raging Trenconian environment, he actually accomplished more than all the rest of the force combined.

“It’s a dirty trick I’m playing on you, Spike,” Kinnison told his helper after a while. “Come on into the receiving room and I’ll see if I can square it with you.”

Since food was the only logical tender, Kinnison brought out from his speedster a small can of salmon, a package of cheese, a bar of chocolate, a few lumps of sugar, and a potato, offering them to the Trenconian in order. The salmon and cheese were both highly acceptable fare. The morsel of chocolate was a delightfully surprising delicacy. The lump of sugar, however, was what really rang the bell—Kinnison’s own mind felt the shock of pure ecstasy as that wonderful substance dissolved in the trenco’s mouth. He also ate the potato, of course—any Trenconian animal will, at any time, eat practically anything—but it was merely food, nothing to rave about.

Knowing now what to do, Kinnison led his assistant out into the howling, shrieking gale and released him from control, throwing a lump of sugar up-wind as he did so. The trenco seized it in the air, ate it, and went into a very hysteria of joy.

“More! More!” he insisted, attempting to climb up the Lensman’s armored leg.

You must work for more of it, if you want it,” Kinnison explained. “Break off broad-leaf plants and carry them over into that empty thing over there, and you get more

This was an entirely new idea to the native, but after Kinnison had taken hold of his mind and had shown him how to do consciously that which he had been doing unconsciously for an hour, he worked willingly enough. In fact, before it started to rain, thereby putting an end to the labor of the day, there were a dozen of them toiling at the harvest and the crop was coming in as fast as the entire crew of Rigellians could process it. And even after the spaceport was sealed they crowded up, paying no attention to the rain, bringing in their small loads of leaves and plaintively asking admittance.

It took some little time for Kinnison to make them understand that the day’s work was done, but that they were to come back tomorrow morning. Finally, however, he succeeded in getting the idea across; and the last disconsolate turtle-man swam reluctantly away. But sure enough, next morning, even before the mud had dried, the same twelve were back on the job, and the two Lensmen wondered simultaneously—how could those trencos have found the space-port? (planet Trenco has such violent electrical storms that the fabric of space is warped like an amusement park mirror so it is easy to get lost) Or had they stayed near it through the storm and flood of the night.

“I don’t know,” Kinnison answered the unasked question, “but I can find out.” Again and more carefully he examined the minds of two or three of them. “No, they didn’t follow us,” he reported then. “They’re not as dumb as I thought they were. They have a sense of perception (a psionic ESP sense that is not fooled by the fabric of space being warped like an amusement park mirror), Tregonsee, about the same thing, I judge, as yours—perhaps even more so. I wonder… why couldn’t they be trained into mighty efficient police assistants on this planet?

“The way you handle them, yes. I can converse with them a little, of course, but they have never before shown any willingness to cooperate with us.”

“You never fed them sugar,” Kinnison laughed. “You have sugar, of course—or do you? I was forgetting that many races do not use it at all.”

“We Rigellians are one of those races. Starch is so much tastier and so much better adapted to our body chemistry that sugar is used only as a chemical. We can, however, obtain it easily enough. But there is something else—you can tell these trencos what to do and make them really understand you. I can not.”

“I can fix that up with a simple mental treatment that I can give you in five minutes. Also, I can let you have enough sugar to carry on with until you can get in a supply of your own.”

In the few minutes during which the Lensman had been discussing their potential allies, the mud had dried and the amazing coverage of vegetation was springing visibly into being. So incredibly rapid was its growth that in less than an hour some species were large enough to be gathered. The leaves were lush and rank in color or a vivid crimsonish purple.

“These early morning plants are the richest of any in thionite—much richer than broad-leaf—but the zwilniks can never get more than a handful of them because of the wind,” remarked the Rigellian. “Now, if you will give me that treatment, I will see what I can do with the flats.”

Kinnison did so, and the trencos worked for Tregonsee as industriously as they had for Kinnison—and ate his sugar as rapturously.

“That’s enough,” decided the Rigellian presently. “This will finish your fifty kilograms and to spare.”

He then paid off his now enthusiastic helpers, with instructions to return when the sun was directly overhead, for more work and more sugar. And this time they did not complain, nor did they loiter around or bring in unwanted vegetation. They were learning fast.

From GALACTIC PATROL by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1937)

One Product Planet: Averted, in its strict form. The realities of interstellar economics, logistics, and costs of transportation mean that it’s almost always more practical to maintain a decent-sized agricultural and manufacturing base at home, rather than import all your food and goods, for anything but the smallest of outposts.

Played straight in a loose form, in which certain worlds are known for certain of their (mostly unique) products, for example:

Big Dumb Object: Within the Empire, the partial Dyson sphere at Corícal Ailek (which exports thought) and the Dyson bubble at Esilmúr (which exports antimatter and other forms of stored energy in unwholesomely large quantities) would qualify.

Capital: For the Empire, that’s Eliéra, the throneworld, which does indeed export governance – to such extent as the Imperial governance is all that centralized, and indeed, can be bothered to govern. For the Worlds as a whole, that would be Conclave (Imperial Core), where the Conclave of Galactic Polities sits and attempts to bring some order to the chaos, with all the associated politicking, corruption, intrigue, and scandal you might expect.

Exotic: A number of these, from the shell-world of Thalíär (Principalities) – mostly exotic from the point of view of the tourism industry – to the blue-white giant in the Ringstars and the black hole out in the Last Darkness constellation. Also, certain exotic matter products are primarily manufactured near the high-energy environment that best supports them, and so have major factories out by Esilmúr, also.

Factory: Qechra (Imperial Core), a corporate conlegial colony world completely overtaken by autoindustrialism, with a manufacturing capacity of holy crap how much!?. It’s more of a showpiece than anything else, and secondarily a place to manufacture ridiculously large items, but it also serves the valuable purpose of being a worrisome sleeping giant.

Farm: Yes, in the sense that there are more than a few worlds that take pride in exporting their local specialist products, from specialist flowers to unique local booze. No, in the sense that just about every world, or at least system, can manage to feed itself locally, and there are no worlds absolutely dependent on their imports of agricultural products, or mighty grain-ships ploughing the spacelanes.

Gates: The closest you get to this are the systems in any given constellation which house the long-range gates to other constellations, and thus are about as close as anything gets to being bottlenecks. (For the Imperial Core, these are Almëa, Meryn, Ocella, Sy, and Vervian Systems).

Military: It doesn’t export military forces – if anything, it imports them – but the Palaxias (Imperial Core) system is essentially given over to the Imperial Navy and its Prime Base, which also houses a large amount of the rest of the Imperial Military Service by default. Also, to a lesser extent, the six systems out in the fringes where the IN keeps the mobile naval bases for its sextant fleets.

Mines: See once again the Imperial energy production facility at Esilmúr; aside from such rare and specialized facilities as it, though, resource gathering tends to be distributed all over the place.

Science: The corporate conlegial research colony at Wynérias (Imperial Core) is notorious for its pursuit of unrestricted research FOR SCIENCE!, as is – even more so – the private conlegial colony at Resplendent Exponential Vector, but they’re hardly the only place where Science happens. Or even where FOR SCIENCE! happens.

Service/Cultural Center: Most notably, Seranth (Imperial Core) is the largest and most prosperous tradeworld the Empire, or even the Worlds, have to offer. It’s by no means, under the general principle I mentioned above, an entire planet of Wall Street, but the Seranth Exchanges do dominate the local economy, and the floating cities of Seranth probably are All Manhattan, All The Time. It’s a very dominant commercial center, and only just eclipsed as a cultural center by Delphys (Imperial Core) for entertainment and art, and Viëlle (Imperial Core) for media in general.

Underworlds: Nepscia (Galith Waste) is infamous throughout the Worlds for its red market. Litash (Dark Sea) was even more infamous for both that and acting as a major pirate center, before it got strangelet-bombed out of existence.


"You've got your own causal channel?" Frank asked, hope vying with disbelief...

..."Tiny — it's the second memory card in my camera." She held her thumb and forefinger apart. "Looks just like a normal solid state plug. Blue packaging."...

...Alice looked over the waist-high safety wall, then backed away from the edge. "I'm not climbing down there. But a bird — hmmmm. Think I've got a sampler head left. If it can eject the card . . . you want me to have a go? Willing to stake half your bandwidth with me if I can liberate it?"

"Guess so. It's got about six terabits left. Fifty-fifty split." Thelma nodded. "How about it?"

"Six terabits —" Frank shook his head in surprise. He hated to think how much it must have cost to haul those milligrams of entangled quantum dots across the endless light years between here and Turku by slower-than-light starwisp. Once used they were gone for good, coherence destroyed by the process that allowed them to teleport the state of a single bit between points in causally connected space-time. STL shipping prices started at a million dollars per kilogram-parsec; it was many orders of magnitude more expensive than FTL, and literally took decades or centuries of advanced planning to set up. But if it could get them a secure, instantaneous link out into the interstellar backbone nets..."

From IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (2004)

The reason trade exists is that different groups are efficient at doing different things. For example, let us say there are two countries, A and B. A takes 15 man-hours to make a widget, but only 5 to make a thingummy. B takes 5 to make a widget and 15 to make a thingummy. Suppose each country produces as many thingummies as widgets, and each has 100 man-hours to allocate. Each will then produce 5 thingummies and 5 widgets ((5*15) + (5*5) = 75 + 25 = 100 man-hours). If A and B now open trade, each may concentrate on producing the item which it produces more efficiently; A will produce thingummies and B widgets. Since a thingummy costs A 5 man-hours, it can produce 20; similarly, B produces 20 widgets. They trade 10 thingummies for 10 widgets, since each wants as many thingummies as widgets. The final result is that each country has 10 thingummies and 10 widgets and each is twice as well off as before. (Indeed, trade is even in the best interest of both when one party has an efficiency advantage in both products, because trade will allow him to shift production into areas where his efficiency is greater.)

One problem not taken into account in the above analysis is the cost of transportation (and other barrier costs, such as import and export duties) which raise the cost of doing business with another group.

From THE 11 BILLION DOLLAR BOTTLE OF WINE by Greg Costikyan (1982)

But all we collected in years of fringe-running was a reputation. The cargoes we carried never made a fortune, but they created rumours. The stories we could tell about ourselves were impressive, and contained enough truth for later voyagers to confirm that we might actually have done what we said. Lapthorn liked people to talk about us.

After the fringe, I tried to come back into the really big markets, in search of a killing. Guns, cosmetics, jewellery, and drugs were all hot markets, with constant demand and irregular supply. Anything in which fashion rules instead of utility is a good market for the trader — and that includes weaponry as well as decoration and edification. I reckoned that we had the initiative to dig out the best, and I was right, but times had moved on while we were out on the rim with the dropouts, and we failed at the other end — the outlets. We couldn't get a fair price, with the middle-men moving into the star-worlds in droves, quoting the Laws of New Rome, and the ordinances of wherever they happened be, and never moving their hands from their gun butts. It was enough to sour anyone against life in the inner circle. I began to sympathise with Lapthorn's dislike of the human way of life.

We stuck with it for a while, because I thought Lapthorn’s genius for digging out the best gems and the most exciting drugs might see us through. But it was useless. The little people seemed to take an excessive delight in cheating us and leaning on us because we were known. The other free traders talked about us. We were the best, by their lights. But we weren't system-beaters. We weren't equipped for dealing with that kind of problem, we had no alternative but to return to small trading, alien to alien. Lapthorn wasn't sorry, of course, and my sorrow was more for the evil ways of the world in general than for our own small part in the human condition.

From THE HALCYON DRIFT by Brian Stableford (1972)

“We must study them.” Bury’s Motie sipped contemplatively at his dirty water, “We spoke of coffees and wines. My associates have noticed—how shall I put it?—a strong cultural set toward wines, among your scientists and Navy officers.”

“Yes. Place of origin, dates, labels, ability to travel in free fall, what wines go with what foods.” Bury grimaced. “I have listened, but I know nothing of this. I find it annoying and expensive that some of my ships must move under constant acceleration merely to protect a wine bottle from its own sediments. Why can they not simply be centrifuged on arrival?”

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)

“Thirty-Two Tons, this is Clajdia SysCon, we’re going to need you to abort your next maneuver, recompute for previous burn time plus twelve minutes, crossing traffic drone freighter DF-01369. Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, negative on that, we have traffic priority over drone freighters. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, affirmative, but you don’t want to exercise priority over one-three-six-nine, over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, clarify please. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, one-three-six-nine is a three-hundred-barrel fermenter of Callaneth’s Finest Ballistic Beer with a special requirement for constant acceleration. We preempt her for you, they lose thrustdown. They lose thrustdown, they lose the batch. They lose the batch, all the belters out of Ipsy Station want your heads to decorate their candles. How badly do you want to harsh the local color? Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, recomputing as requested. Clear.”


The main mechanism for trade is what is called "Arbitrage", the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets. In this context it boils down to "buy cheap and sell dear", that is, purchase goods that are cheap at Planet A, then transport and sell them at Planet B where the goods are expensive. The money you make selling at Planet B, minus how much you spent purchasing at Planet A yields your gross profit. Subtract from that your transport expenses and other expenses and you'll find your net profit (if any).

There is also the problem of price convergence. The profit is from the price difference between the two markets. The difference tends to shrink over time, which eliminates the profit. Sometimes the market at your destination becomes saturated (as the manufacturers of Beanie Babies found out), sometimes the supply at the origin dries up (like petroleum).


(ed note: Rylat and Akyro are two odd-looking aliens {see above illustration} from the planet Olittra. Sadly, their planet has suffered a wide-ranging blight of their food crops, no food grows anymore. They are surviving by using synthetic food but nobody likes the stuff because it tastes like smeg. Exploration ships have been sent out to try and locate food plants on other worlds, but with no success.

As Rylat and Akyro are disappointed by yet another barren planet they detect a Human spaceship. Neither race have ever contacted each other, but they are both in the Galactic Code Book, both races are rated as "civilized", and they can communicate with the Galactic Gesture Code. Which is a good thing since Olittrans use telepathy and humans talk with their voices. The two humans are "Cloth-maker" {Weaver} and "Strong-foreleg" {Armstrong})

      “Well, I shall invite them down to meet us,” he thought back. “See about unpacking a shelter assembly, in case they come out wearing something clumsy.”
     When the Solarians arrived, Rylat invited them by gestures to enter the temporary shelter. Akyro had a heat converter operating, producing as a waste product an atmosphere breathable by the Olittrans.
     “What does he want to know?” inquired Akyro, as his companion replied to the Solarian’s next gestures. “He was surprised that we set up the shelter in so short a time, and wanted to know what the heat converter is.”
     “Maybe it is new to them,” suggested Akyro.
     “I doubt it, for they seemed to lose interest when I explained the principle and how one can produce any element at all as waste.

(ed note: So the Olittran space heaters can be set to produce as a waste product oxygen, diamonds, uranium, gold, platinum or whatever element you want. Egads. But they fail to realize the human's lack of interest is feigned. The humans realize that space heater can make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but it would be poor trading tactics to let the Olittran know.)

      The smaller one, meanwhile, inspected the shelter curiously. He showed interest in the system for supporting the dome with the pressure of the inclosed atmosphere, and. made rough gestures to Akyro to indicate admiration for the simple but effective entrance chamber. He did not pay any further attention to the heat converter, apparently taking it for granted after the first explanation.
     When he told the Weaver that he and Akyro were merely on an exploring expedition, the Solarian amended his business offer to a suggestion that they exchange souvenirs. (that is, to give the Olittrans a tourist trap ash-tray printed with SOUVENIR OF MIAMI BEACH in exchange for a trillion-credit space heater that spits out solid gold nuggets)
     “Perhaps they could tell us of some planet such as we seek,” Akyro thought to Rylat.
     “I judge it unwise for us to seem overcurious. They might demand some fantastic reward if we reveal the necessity of our finding new plant stocks.”
     “But that would hardly be ethical,” protested Akyro.
     Rylat thought a stupid, newly-hatched cub, and told Akyro that he was always too trusting with alien beings. “Time enough,” . he suggested, “to worry about ethics when they were acquainted. Besides,” he added, “the Weaver has invited us to see their ship. We should learn what they are like.”

     “What does he think?” inquired Akyro, as the Weaver made a series of code gestures to Rylat.
     “He invites us to inspect samples of their cargo. I fear he still believes us willing to trade something.”
     Out of politeness, they permitted the red-topped Solarian to lead them to another compartment. Here, he displayed various wares. The Olittrans noted that the Solarian objects ran mostly to gadgets and precision instruments, while things they had obtained by trading were in many cases minerals. The Weaver displayed with strange pride some large chunks of white carbon crystals (diamonds), and small quantities of some of the heavier elements. (the Olittrans are puzzled why the Solarians are so proud of trading for space heater waste) Those which radiated were kept in shielded containers.
     Rylat did not blame him for that. He himself had once incurred a severe rash on his thick hide when he had left too much uranium—a waste product from a heat converter—lying around outside his shelter.

     “There is little here to attract us,” he thought to Akyro.
     “True,” the other agreed. “Their workmanship is very fine, but our own instruments are adequate. As for the minerals, we could make up any quantity of those in a short time.”
     “I shall not tell them exactly that,” decided Rylat.
     “Why not?”
     “Oh … it would hardly be polite.”

     As they passed forward through the living quarters, Rylat glanced with one eye at a flat-topped piece of furniture upon which the other Solarian was setting out food and drink. This included, he noted half-unconsciously, a portion of an obviously synthetic substance, but also a number of what looked like vegetables. In fact, one platter held a heap of untreated white stalks with green leaves.
     The idea came to Rylat that these must be raw and fresh plants, grown recently; and he turned another eye upon them.
     Grown recently!
     The realization smote him with almost physical force. His eyestalks retracted halfway before he could control himself, and his walking legs involuntarily bowed in the vestige of a crouch.
     “What is the trouble?” Akyro asked.
     “Look at the food!”
     Akyro looked, and his eyestalks twitched.
     “A fresh plant! Quickly—ask them where they got it!”
     Rylat controlled himself with an effort. The red-thatched Weaver had turned his head at the Olittrans’ hesitation, and was training both eyes curiously upon them.
     “Pay no attention to it,” Rylat ordered his companion. “And come along! He notices our actions.”

(ed note: Rylat hopes the humans do not realize that his lack of interest is feigned. The source of the fresh plants is the salvation of Olittra, but it would be poor trading tactics to let the humans know.)

     “For your love of posterity!” Akyro insisted. “Ask him where he got it! Ask him!”
     “Later,” Rylat thought to him, moving toward the exit port between that compartment and the piloting chamber forward.
     Akyro bounced irritably on his walking legs and stared back at the foodstuffs with three of his eyes. “Do not be a fool !” he urged. “Do you realize what it may mean to us ? Since the blight struck Olittra, and with the population what it is? We were not sent to pick up pretty crystals, you know !”
     “You need not be sarcastic,” retorted Rylat. “I know our mission as well as you, but I have also heard about these races proficient in trading. I know what I am doing.”

     The Solarians, it developed, had stopped at this star only in search of barter. They were as disappointed with it, in their way, as were the Olittrans.
     “We, also, were passing and stopped out of curiosity,” Rylat signaled. “But we are merely explorers.”
     “Traders such as we,” waved the Weaver, “often must be their own explorers.”
     “That is interesting,” Rylat told him. “Perhaps you would describe for me how a trading expedition operates.” (much like a card shark asking a sucker "Gee, poker? How do you play that game…")
     Akyro was annoyed.
     “Why make yourself a simpleton?’' he asked Rylat.
     His companion briefly thought a set of eyestalks tied in a knot, and continued his gesture talk. The Solarian explained that it was not always necessary to obtain something more valuable than what one gave for it.
     “Sometimes,” he indicated, “the mere act of transporting an object to a different planetary system increases its value enormously. It may be rare or peculiarly useful there.”
     “It seems close to cheating to me,” thought Akyro, but his thought was ignored.
     “Well, of course, I would not understand these matters,” Rylat informed the Solarian.
     The Weaver gaped at him a moment with small blue eyes, then turned to Strong-foreleg (Armstrong). The two Solarians exchanged a series of oral vibrations which apparently served for communication with them (with a conversation that probably mirrored Rylat and Akyro's quite closely). After a little discussion, the Weaver turned his red-furred head again to Rylat.

     “Perhaps, for luck or amusement or what you will, we might make some token exchange. It would provide us with souvenirs of this meeting.”
     Rylat expressed willingness. There followed rather floundering attempts on both sides to suggest something desirable to the opposite parties (because both sides are terrified to admit what they really want).
     The Solarians regretfully declined any of the Olittran instruments that Rylat thought he could spare, apologizing that their own were satisfactory. Nor did Rylat profess any interest in the Solarians’ knicknacks, picked up on half a dozen worlds lately visited.
     “But we have some very good maps of Sector Eleven,” he offered in his turn.
     The Weaver thanked him, but the Solarians did not plan to travel in that direction. In the end, he suggested that they visit his cargo compartments again.
     “Ask him about the plants!” Akyro urged.
     “How can I ?” Rylat thought back. “What have we to offer for such information? They will surely want something!”
     “Well, if you refuse to ask him, I shall stay here and watch to see if his friend brings out any more of them.”
     “As you please,” answered Rylat, and followed the Weaver from the compartment.

     They walked along a metal-decked corridor to the same storeroom of samples that Rylat had seen earlier. He found nothing new that interested him, and was careful to make this fact diplomatically clear to the Solarian.
     During the process, he felt Akyro calling him, and so he indicated as soon as possible a desire to rejoin the others.
     “They grow them themselves !” his friend greeted him, as he entered the living quarters with the Weaver.
     “Explain that!” demanded Rylat, noting that the Solarians were also seizing the opportunity to communicate privately.
     “The plants!” Akyro thought to him. “They have tanks on the ship where they grow them in water with chemicals and artificial radiation. I have seen them !” (while the Olittrans are past masters at the science of transmutation, they never stumbled onto the science of hydroponics. Which is why contact with other alien species is rich with opportunities for arbitrage)
     “I stood here looking bored until Strong-foreleg showed me through some of the compartments.”
     “Did you let him see what interested you ?” Rylat paused to think a hollow bubble of clear plastic. “Of course you did, or they would not be vibrating their mouths at each other. Really, Akyro!”

     The Weaver turned to Rylat and inquired if he might not be interested in seeing the hydroponic tanks. Rylat agreed without outward enthusiasm. He hoped that the Solarian would not know how to interpret the slight shrinking of his eyestalks.
     They all walked into the compartment mentioned, and Rylat’s walking legs nearly buckled.
     All about the bulkheads of the compartment, and in rows down the center, were large, transparent tanks with plants in various stages of growth. Most were some shade of green in the parts that Rylat guessed normally grew above the ground.
     He allowed himself, for a brief moment, to picture Olittra’s blighted agricultural areas repopulated with such plant life. The food problem he would solve if he could only get some seeds or cuttings ! He was so tired of synthetic foods—

     “They are very pretty,” he signaled. “They remind me of the gorgeous foliage of my home planet.”
     “Rylat!” came Akyro’s horrified thought. “How can you deliver such an untruth ? It is not ethical!”
     “It is not an untruth. Any vegetable matter at present makes me remember Olittra. Besides, how could he know our vegetation was mostly) purple?”
     He had to request that the Weaver repeat his last gestures. “I said, we would be very glad to let you have a few. They are quite nourishing.”
     “Oh, we seldom eat such,” replied Rylat. “Still, they would be pleasant decoration in our bare and functional ship.”
     The Solarians exchanged stares that made him wonder if perhaps they, too, had a form of telepathy. Then the Weaver reached into the nearest tank of dark green specimens.
     “Perhaps,” Rylat began; and then, as the Weaver looked up, “but never mind. It is not necessary—”
     Akyro’s walking legs folded completely. He crouched on the deck, heedless of the Solarians’ astonished glances, and thought a violent volcanic eruption. Rylat caught the whole image distinctly. It included himself at the zenith of the up-jetting burst of flames.
     “I was about to suggest,” he signaled the waiting Weaver imperturbably, “that perhaps you could spare us a complete tank, since you have so many. Growing new plants would be an amusing hobby to us in the loneliness of space.”

     The Weaver signified that he would be only too pleased. He insisted upon including a supply of chemicals and a special light-tube. He and Rylat examined the latter, and the Olittran assured him that he could arrange to feed the proper power into it. The Olittrans carried enough water to supply the tank.
     Both Solarians donned vacuum suits to assist with the transportation of the tank, which they thoughtfully inclosed in an insulated cylinder. Rylat was qualified to bear only a token share of the burden across the sand outside. Akyro trailed the group unsteadily, eyestalks still a bit retracted. The Solarians helped get the cylinder inside the Olittran vessel, but declined to be shown around.
     “Probably feel a bit clumsy because of their size and those bulky suits,” Rylat thought to Akyro. (nope, the humans already know what they want as a souvenir. It ain't in the ship, it's in the bubble shelter outside.)

     To the Solarians, he expressed appreciation and asked if they had not hit upon some gift he could make in return.
     “It is nothing !” waved the Weaver. “Do you intend to leave soon ?”
     “Rylat!” pleaded Akyro. “Tell him yes, and quickly! If they take time to reflect, they will surely realize the value of what they are giving us!”
     “Patience! I, too, deeply desire to mount a starbeam.”
     He signaled to the Solarian that they did intend to leave almost immediately. The Weaver expressed regret.
     “But tell me what we can do,” insisted Rylat, fearful lest cause arise to make him surrender his booty.
     “We had considered inspecting the planet’s surface and its mineral content,” the Weaver informed him.
     “An interesting hobby,” replied Rylat doubtfully.
     By the looks they exchanged, the twa Solarians were as puzzled at that as he was at their project. Who cared what minerals could be dug up? One could convert them any time.
     “Our object,” the Weaver tried again, “was to make ourselves comfortable on the surface and take a holiday from the confines of the ship.”
     “Ah!” answered Rylat, comprehending at last. “Why, if you wish to use our shelter, you are more than welcome.”
     The Weaver accepted with thanks, but wondered about the Olittrans’ departure.
     “It will not matter,” Rylat assured him. “We can pick up the shelter the next time we pass this way.”
     “Rylat! Give it to him! Let us leave this place with some dispatch,” pleaded Akyro.
     “In fact,” continued Rylat, “I recall that we have another, so you might as well keep the one outside. I will get you a set of instructions for the entrance valve and the heat converter. You will be able to understand the diagrams, at least.”
     He did so, and after many exchanges of courtesies, the Solarians departed.

     Akyro wasted no time in securing the tank of plants in the hold. As soon as the Solarians were safely in their own ship, Rylat took off.
     He spiraled away from the planet and set a tentative course for the limit between Sectors Twelve and Eleven.
     “About my remark on returning to pick up that shelter,” he teased Akyro, “you did not believe I would really risk facing them again? After cheating them like that ?”
     Akyro did not reply. Rylat turned an eye toward him and saw that he was watching his dials intently. “What is it?” he asked, vaguely uneasy.
     “Moving radiation of the same pattern. It must be the Solarians, leaving the planet.”
     “How fast?” demanded Rylat, wondering if he dared step up the acceleration even more.
     “About as fast as we, perhaps a bit more.”
     Rylat’s eyestalks cringed. He hastily estimated the emergency power available to him.
     “Enough to catch us?” he inquired anxiously.
     “Oh, no,” Akyro told him calmly. “They are heading in the opposite direction.”
     “No doubt of it. As fast as they can, apparently.”

     Rylat rose from the piloting bench and joined the other at the bank of instruments.
     “I do not understand it,” he thought to Akyro. “They claimed they intended to stay. And we certainly left nothing to make them hurry home.”
     “Perhaps the mechanism of the entrance valve?”
     “No … they had better on their ship. And they showed no special interest in the heat converter. I doubt they would want to play at transmuting elements.”
     “Who would want a heat converter for that ? They, too, must have better ways.”
     “Exactly. So what could be on their consciences ?”
     They pondered until Rylat returned to the piloting bench and curiously focused the image of the Solarian vessel on the telescreen.
     “Let us admire their folly,” Akyro suggested, “but not to the extent of lingering.”
     “No … and yet, I wonder why—”
     He watched the other ship move out of focus.
     “Look at them go !” he thought to Akyro. “Anyone would suspect that they—not we—had practically committed theft!”

(ed note: and the moral of the story is One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure. Or Sophont's trash.)

From IN VALUE DECEIVED by H. B. Fyfe (1950)

Ménage à Trade

A trader would like a nice simple two-planet set up: where they go to planet Alfa to buy a load of Alfan Aphrodisiac Apples, transports them to planet Bravo to sell them at a fat profit, buys a load of Bravoian Bodacious Beef, transports it to planet Alfa, and sells it at a fat profit. Rinse, lather, repeat.

But all too often one of the planets does not cooperate, such as when planet Bravo desired Alfan Aphrodisiac Apples, but the vegetarian Alfans look upon Bravo's major export with horror.

The key to solving the problem is Ménage à Trade. The trader has to find a third planet, one that wants to import Bravo's export, and which exports something that Alfa wants. Such as planet Charlie, which adores Bravoian Bodacious Beef, and exports Charlean Chicory Coffee without which no Alfan breakfast is complete.

The main historical example often cited is despicable, since one of the "trade items" is slaves. This vile period in history is euphemistically called the "African Diaspora". The term "triangle trade" is to be avoided because of the association.


Triangular trade or triangle trade is a historical term indicating trade among three ports or regions. Triangular trade usually evolves when a region has export commodities that are not required in the region from which its major imports come. Triangular trade thus provides a method for rectifying trade imbalances between the above regions.

The particular routes were historically also shaped by the powerful influence of winds and currents during the age of sail. For example, from the main trading nations of Western Europe it was much easier to sail westwards after first going south of 30 N latitude and reaching the so-called "trade winds"; thus arriving in the Caribbean rather than going straight west to the North American mainland. Returning from North America, it is easiest to follow the Gulf Stream in a northeasterly direction using the westerlies. A similar triangle to this, called the volta do mar was already being used by the Portuguese, before Columbus' voyage, to sail to the Canary Islands and the Azores. Columbus simply expanded the triangle outwards, and his route became the main way for Europeans to reach, and return from, the Americas.

From the Wikipedia entry for TRIANGULAR TRADE

This gives the sky merchant a grasp of economics rarely achieved by bankers or professors. He is engaged in barter and no nonsense. He pays taxes he can't evade and doesn't care whether they are called "excise" or "king's pence" or "squeeze" or straight-out bribes. It is the other kid's bat and ball and backyard, so you play by his rules — nothing to get in a sweat about...

...By the Law of Supply and Demand a thing has value from where it is as much as from what it is — and that's what a merchant does; he moves things from where they are cheap to where they are worth more. A smelly nuisance in a stable is valuable fertilizer if you move it to the south forty. Pebbles on one planet can be precious gems on another. The art in selecting cargo lies in knowing where things will be worth more, and the merchant who can guess right can reap the wealth of Midas in one trip. Or guess wrong and go broke...

...The trade routes for a two-way swap show minimum profit; they fill up too quickly. But a triangular trade — or higher numbers — can show high profits. Like this: Landfall had something — call it cheese — which was a luxury on Blessed — while Blessed produced — call it chalk — much in demand on Valhalla ... whereas Valhalla manufactured doohickeys that Landfall needed.

Work this in the right direction and get rich; work it backwards and lose your shirt.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)

I walked on the other side of Uncle Q. He looked down at me curiously from time to time, a kind of bemused half-smile stamped on his face.

Before it got too awkward I said, “So? What brings you to Niol?”

Triangle trade, Ishmael,” he said. “Boat parts for the fishing fleet from here to Umber. Bulk fertilizer to Barsi, frozen food from Barsi to here.”

“Not very exciting,” Aunt P added, “but it has put our three boys through the academy and paid off the Penny.”

From FULL SHARE by Nathan Lowell (2011)

(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Triangle trade is a simple and extremely profitable concept. An example:

  1. High Elves desire silver as they melt the coins down and turn them into jewelry. In return for chests of silver, they sell their carefully hand-crafted ghostly textiles, super common to them but rare to everyone else.

  2. The Dwarves, who have strained relations to the High Elves but not with the people flying castles, exchange the holds of Elven textiles for Dwarven magical weapons and armor.

  3. The Murder Hobos at home pay premium price (in silver) for Dwarven magical weapons and armor which they use to murder various indigenous demi-humans for more silver.

Around and around the Flying Castle goes, taking a markup at each step, and selling to those who want things and buying oversupply. This is not limited to Elven textiles and Dwarven magical weapons – Flying Castles trade in rare and precious magic items and spells, spices, other textiles, rare food stuffs, inventions, technology, finished goods, and beings from far away continents.

Problems crop up in the otherwise tame and civilized triangle trade when two nations both want a monopoly in one rare and valuable good. For example, both Flying Castles wish to sell a high performing rare Elven mithril armor crafted only by one tribe of Elves living on a distant and nicely tropical island. Controlling that good – and the island – and monopolizing it allows one nation to reap the profits while the other nation to pay sky high and price-controlled prices. The potential profits are huge.

It’s in the best interests of Murder Hobos, and the two nations, to try to control that island, its goods, and its inhabitants. In go the swords and mercenaries. One might think the Elves on the island making armor would have something to say about all this. But to have a say, they need to get a Flying Castle. Right now what they have are coconuts and really nice hammocks. The Elves are out of luck.

Here the nations do what nations do. They do enter into far off hostilities. They ship fireball-throwing cannons instead of cotton thread. And they get into a hot shooting war over islands and Elves.


Back in medieval times, merchant voyage durations were measured in years and long distance communication was non-existent. The same may hold true with hypothetical interstellar traders. In order to cope with the problems, medieval merchants invented Letters of Credit and Bills of Lading. For a simple explanation (with diagrams) of how they worked go here.

A letter of credit is a document issued by a financial institution, or a similar party, assuring payment to a seller of goods and/or services.[1] The seller then seeks reimbursement from the buyer or from the buyer's bank. The document serves essentially as a guarantee to the seller that it will be paid by the issuer of the letter of credit regardless of whether the buyer ultimately fails to pay. In this way, the risk that the buyer will fail to pay is transferred from the seller to the letter of credit's issuer.The letter of credit also insures that all the agreed upon standards and quality of goods are met by the supplier.

Letters of credit are used primarily in international trade for large transactions between a supplier in one country and a customer in another. In such cases, the International Chamber of Commerce Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits applies (UCP 600 being the latest version).[2] They are also used in the land development process to ensure that approved public facilities (streets, sidewalks, storm water ponds, etc.) will be built. The parties to a letter of credit are the supplier, usually called the beneficiary, the issuing bank, of whom the buyer is a client, and sometimes an advising bank, of whom the beneficiary is a client. Almost all letters of credit are irrevocable, i.e., cannot be amended or canceled without the consent of the beneficiary, issuing bank, and confirming bank, if any. In executing a transaction, letters of credit incorporate functions common to giros and traveler's cheques.

From "LETTER OF CREDIT" entry of Wikipedia

A bill of lading (sometimes abbreviated as B/L or BOL) is a document used in the transport of goods by sea. It serves several purposes in international trade, both as transit information and title to the goods.

A legal document between the shipper of a particular good and the carrier detailing the type, quantity and destination of the good being carried. The bill of lading also serves as a receipt of shipment when the good is delivered to the predetermined destination. This document must accompany the shipped goods, no matter the form of transportation, and must be signed by an authorized representative from the carrier, shipper and receiver.

From "BILL OF LADING" entry of Wikipedia

Merchant Guild

Medieval merchants had other innovations that might be useful in an interstellar trading future.

The roads were bad and in poor repair. Ocean routes were treacherous. Brigands and pirates lurked in parts of the trade route far from any help. Distant nations treated merchants with disdain at best and as rich people to rob at worst. And every single landowner along the trade route felt that they had a right to extort whatever tax they could get out of the trade caravan.

To fix these problems the medieval merchants found effective solutions, the most effective being the concept of a Merchant Guild. These were association of of traders. Guilds could invest the member's fees in such things as improving road conditions and suppressing pirates and brigands. Lighthouses were erected at dangerous points, to prevent merchant shipwrecks. The guild would negotiate treaties of commerce with foreign nations, protecting the liberty and security of guild members (sometimes the guild could even get an agreement for foreign troops to travel with a trade caravan). And while a single trader could not do much about landowner's imposed taxes, a huge guild could negotiate from a position of power. Negotiations with a landowner would result in a Merchant Guild charter, where guild members would pay a fixed sum or an annual payment for right of passage.

You can see how these concepts can be re-used in an interstellar trading future, the situations are much the same.

The flip-side of course is that the guild members have to pay their dues to the guild, and obey all the guild regulations. Members cannot engage in any type of trade forbidden by the Guild charter, fines were imposed on members who broke the rules, and guild members had to aid and support fellow guild members in times of trouble. If a guild member was killed, the guild would care for any orphans thus tragically created. Guilds also supplied health insurance, funeral expenses, and doweries for girls who could not afford them.

Naturally the guilds became quite powerful. Independent traders would find it difficult to compete. In a village, local craftsmen also found it difficult to compete with the Merchant guilds, which lead to the rise of Craft guilds in self-defense. Eventually the merchant guild members delegated all the actual traveling and trading jobs in their profession to employees, and instead sat comfortably at home while their factors did all the hard work.

In Andre Norton's novels the "Free Traders" are independent interstellar merchants owning little more than their starship. Often they are victimized by the megacorporation trading companies, who are too big for an individual free trader to fight. In the novel Moon Of Three Rings apparently the free traders have formed a Merchant guild called the "Legion", which collectively is powerful enough to defend the members from the megacorps.

Trading Post

A trading post or "factory" is where a merchant (or the merchant's factor) carries on the merchant's business on a foreign planet. The trading post exchanges imported trade items for valuable local goods. In some cases a trading post and a couple of warehouses can grow into an actual colony. The trading post merchant or factor is responsible for the local goods logistics (proper storage and shipping), assesing and packaging for spacecraft transport. The factor is the representative for the merchant in all matters, reporting everything to the merchant headquarters. The longer the communication time delay between trading post and headquarters, the more trustworthy the factor has to be. Factors may work with native contract suppliers, called a comprador

Also interesting is how the rise of the 17th century Dutch seaborne empire was due in part to their superior utilization of wind energy in the form of their breakthrough cargo transport, the Fluyt ship. Unlike other cargo ships of the time, the Fluyt was not designed to be easily converted into a warship. It was pure merchant vessel. This means it was cheaper to build, carried twice the cargo, and needed a smaller crew. Specialized shipyards optimised for Fluyt production brought the construction price down to a mere 50% of a cost of a conventional ship. It could also operate in much shallower water than a conventional ship, allowing it to get cargo in and out of ports other ships could not reach. By using a Fluyt, cargo transport costs were only 70% to 50% of the transport cost with a conventional ship. The only trade route Fluyts could not be used on were long haul voyages to the East Indies and the New World, because Fluyts were unarmed.

If you are a science fiction writer or game creator, these ideas should start the wheels turning in your mind. It may be instructive to read a couple of history textbooks on the topic of Merchant Guilds, and look over the Nicholas van Rijn stories of Poul Anderson.

While a trading post can be on a remote planet at the frontier of a long space route, a Transport Nexus will probably be more centrally located. A trading post planet might be the only source of some valuable luxury good (exotic gem stones, unique liquor, native artworks) so it can be located on Planet Sticks in the Boondocks Cluster. By way of contrast, transport nexuses are centers of commerce and will be "strategically" located.


     ''Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
     When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
     And softly though the silence beat the bells
     Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

     We travel not for trafficking alone:
     By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
     For lust of knowing what should not be known
     We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.''

     — James Elroy Flecker, "The Golden Road to Samarkand"

An Intrepid Merchant is a merchant that goes to the far corners of his world, bravely seeking profit. He is a treasure-hunter but the treasure is not hidden, it is in the bazaar waiting for him after he has crossed the deserts, mountains, seas, or trackless gulfs of space. The chief characteristic of an Intrepid Merchant is that he is both a merchant and an adventurer. He buys and sells like any other trader. The difference is that he goes to far distant markets to find what he is looking for. (May be fond of being In Harm's Way - after all, the more dangerous it is to get at something, the rarer and, therefore, more valuable it's likely to be.)

On the less salubrious side of things, this character type can overlap with being a Privateer or Pirate (where the risk is the original owner fighting back), a smuggler (where the risk is that you're trading illegally), or even a slave trader.

If he ever "retires" (or at least settles in one place), he's likely to become a Merchant Prince on the basis of his earnings.

This trope is Older Than Feudalism, dating back in poetry, folklore and history to at least Sinbad the Sailor, continuing as a staple of adventure fiction until the present day, and finding its way into science-fiction almost as soon as the genre came into existence. It migrated to role-playing games, especially Traveller, in which it is one of the main player character types. Inevitably the Intrepid Trader found new territory to explore in computer games, appearing in Elite and its successors. A common space subtrope of this would be the Space Trucker.

Intrepid Merchants were arguably the foundation of the world's economy, before easy transportation and communication made his kind irrelevant. They still exist in places like Central Asia in which transportation and communication are not easy.

When a whole culture has this as its Hat, it is a Proud Merchant Race .

For a huge list of examples click here

INTREPID MERCHANT entry from TV Tropes

     Not counting the Line and the Foundry, the yards and the village, too,
     I've made myself and a million; but I'm damned if I made you.
     Master at two-and-twenty, and married at twenty-three —
     Ten thousand men on the pay-roll, and forty freighters at sea
     Fifty years between'em, and every year of it fight,
     And now I'm Sir Anthony Gloster, dying, a baronite:
     For I lunched with his Royal 'Ighness — what was it the papers had?
     "Not the least of our merchant-princes." Dickie, that's me, your dad!
     Rudyard Kipling,The Mary Gloster

By using acquired wealth, knowledge, and skills (often including outright bribery), a merchant or other capitalist character becomes a member of society's ruling class. Unlike in One Nation Under Copyright, the Merchant Prince doesn't necessarily own outright the society he rules, or even run a Mega Corp.; he may, in fact, be only the "first among equals" among many competing merchants. However, this usually doesn't keep him from trying to run the government like he would his business.

Note that to qualify for this trope, a merchant must rise to power as a consequence of his own power and wealth. A merchant who inherits political power because he was already the rightful heir to the throne doesn't count, as he would have gotten that throne regardless of his mercantile activities. A Self-Made Man who becomes royalty by being wealthy and renowned enough to marry the king's only daughter would count, however.

Generally, a Merchant City will be ruled by one of these, or by a council of them modeled after those of Renaissance Italy. Though not required for the trope, some may operate (at least) one Mega Corp..

A particularly successful Intrepid Merchant often "retires" to become one of these. In more modern settings, expect a lot of these to also be Corrupt Corporate Executives. Some video games based on the An Entrepreneur Is You model may have becoming one as the player's goal.

For a huge list of examples click here

MERCHANT PRINCE entry from TV Tropes

     "If it can't be had here, it can't be had on any world."
     — High Market flavor text, Magic The Gathering

A city populated mainly by merchants, or known for its shopping opportunities. Tends to be a port or somewhere financially strategic. Usually has a Black Market and/or a Bazaar of the Bizarre. You can buy the best available items there, or at least have the most variety to choose from.

This is often, but not always the capital or Hub City.

On many occasions it will be the hometown of a Proud Merchant Race, and will be the favorite hangout of the Intrepid Merchant. Some are even ruled by Merchant Princes.

For a huge list of examples click here

MERCHANT CITY entry from TV Tropes

(ed note: In the novel, the women refugees from Terra arrive in another alien civilization cluster. They need to start a business to support their efforts. Luck for them, Terra has a few economic innovations unknown to the aliens)

     The sha-Eyzka had received the humans kindly, in their fashion: given them the freedom of Zatlokopa, taught them language and customs, heard their story. After that the newcomers were on their own, in the raw capitalism which dominated this whole cluster.
     But a small syndicate of native investors had been willing to take a flyer and help them get started.
     There wasn't much question of commercial rivalry yet. The women's operations were too radically unlike anything seen before. Carriers and brokers existed in plenty throughout this cluster, but not on the scale which Terran Traders contemplated—nor with such razzle-dazzle innovations as profit sharing, systems analysis, and motivational research among outworld cultures.

(ed note: One of the women is abducted by the alien Forsi.)

     Forsi, Sigrid realized. The second most powerful race in this cluster. She might have guessed.
     One goblin leaned toward her. His skin rustled as he moved. "There is no reason to waste time," he clipped. "We have already learned that you stand high among the sha-Terra. The highest ranking one, in fact, whom it was practicable for us to capture. You will cooperate or suffer the consequences. Understand, to Forsi commercial operations are not merely for private gain, as here on Zatlokopa, but are part of a larger design. You, Terran Traders corporation have upset the economic balance of this cluster. We extrapolate that the upsetting will grow exponentially if not checked. In order to counteract your operations, we must have detailed information about their rationale and the fundamental psychology behind it. You have shrewdly exploited the fact that no two species think entirely alike and that you yourselves, coming from an altogether foreign civilization-complex, are doubly unpredictable. We shall take you home with us and make studies."

     Another asked curiously, "Did you search long before picking this culture?"
     "We were lucky," Sigrid admitted. Anything to gain time! "We had . . . this sort of goal . . . in mind—a free enterprise economy at a stage of pioneering and expansion—but there are so many clusters. . . . After visiting only two, though, we heard rumors about yours."

     "We hope to leave within a few years," Sigrid pleaded. "Can't you realize our situation? We've made no secret of it. Our planet is dead. A few ships with our own kind—males—are scattered we know not where in the galaxy. We fled this far to be safe from Earth's unknown enemy. Not to become powerful here, not even to make our home here, but to be safe. Then we had to make a living—"
     "Which you have done with an effectiveness that has already overthrown many calculations," said a Forsi dryly.
     "But, but, but listen! Certainly we're trying to become rich. As rich as possible. But not as an end in itself. Only as a means. When we have enough wealth, we can hire enough ships . . . to scour the galaxy for other humans. That's all, I swear!
     "A most ingenious scheme," the chief nodded. "It might well succeed, given time."
     "And then . . . we wouldn't stay here. We wouldn't want to. This isn't our civilization. We'd go back, get revenge for Earth, establish ourselves among familiar planets. Or else we'd make a clean break, go far beyond every frontier, colonize a wholly new world. We are not your competitors. Not in the long run. Can't you understand?"
     "Even the short run is proving unpleasant for us," the chief said. "And as for long-range consequences, you may depart, but the corporate structure you will have built up—still more important, the methods and ideas you introduce—those will remain. Forsi cannot cope with them."

(ed note: However, the women turn the tables on the Forsi, rescuing Sigrid and capturing the Forsi.)

     An Eyzka called the police corporation while the others secured the surviving Forsi. "There's going to be one all-time diplomatic explosion about this, my dear," Alexandra panted. "Which . . . I think . . . Terran Traders, Inc., can turn to advantage."
     Sigrid grinned feebly. "What a ravening capitalist you have become," she said.
     "I have no choice, have I? You were the one who first proposed that we turn merchants." The Yugoslav girl hefted her gun. "But if violence is to be a regular thing, I will make a suggestion or two."
     She looked at the sullen prisoners. Her head shook, her tongue clicked. "So they thought to get tough with us? Poor little devils!"

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)
Collected in To Outlive Eternity

The Silk Road Convoy was almost three hundred years old.

Its path roughly described a bent and swollen, meandering, broken ellipse along the edge of the rift and then out and across it and back again. A closer examination might reveal that the trail of the convoy was actually a series of lesser arcs tracing through the spiral arm, then turning reluctantly out into the darkness of The Deep Rift, with one scheduled stopover at the forlorn worlds of Marathon, Ghastly, and George, then across The Great Leap and into the lips of the ghostly streamer known as The Purse on the opposite side, then around The Outbeyond, down toward The Silver Horn, and finally turning home again, leaping across at The Narrows and then down through The Valley of Death to The Heart of Darkness, then a sudden dogleg up to a place of desperate joy known as Last Chance, before finally sliding into The Long Ride Home and a golden world called Glory.

The Silk Road Convoy was the oldest of all the caravans on the route. It was not the largest fleet on the route, but it was definitely the richest and most prestigious.

The convoy followed the path of an ancient exploration vessel. Colonies had followed the vessel. Traders had followed the colonies. The trade had evolved over the centuries into a trade route called The Silk Road. Eventually, due to the twists and vagaries of luck and history and fate, it became one of the most profitable routes known in the Alliance. At any given moment there might be as many as thirty different caravans scattered along its great curving length—but only the original Silk Road Convoy was entitled to bear the name of the trade route. This was because the partnership which had grown up with the original Silk Road Convoy also owned or controlled most of the directorships of the Silk Road Authority.

The Silk Road Authority was larger than most governments. It held three seats in the Alliance and controlled almost all of the trade, both legal and otherwise, within the ellipse of its influence. The Authority had major offices on every planet within thirty light-years of the primary route. Every merchant ship in the arm paid a license fee for the privilege of traveling the route and booking passengers and cargo through the offices of the Authority.

Some ships, like the notorious freebooter Eye of Argon, preferred to travel alone. Others paid for the privilege of traveling with a caravan. The caravans were near-permanent institutions.

Imagine a chain of vessels nearly three light-days long, islands of light strung through the darkness. They carried names like The Emerald Colony Traders (licensed to The Silk Road) and The Great Rift Corporation (licensed to The Silk Road) and Zetex Starlines (licensed to The Silk Road). The caravans provided service and safety—and safety had lately become a primary consideration for star travelers.

Because of its name, because of its age and its prestige, the Silk Road Convoy was considered the safest of all.

From VOYAGE OF THE STAR WOLF by David Gerrold (1990)

Too often in history a mercenary force has disappeared a moment before the battle; switched sides for a well-timed bribe; or even conquered its employer and brought about the very disasters it was hired to prevent.

Mercenaries, for their part, face the chances common to every soldier of being killed by the enemy. In addition, however, they must reckon with the possibility of being bilked of their pay or massacred to avoid its payment; of being used as cannon fodder by an employer whose distaste for "money-grubbing aliens" may exceed the enemy's; or of being abandoned far from home when defeat or political change erases their employer or his good will.

A solution to both sets of special problems was made possible by the complexity of galactic commerce. The recorded beginnings came early in the twenty-seventh century when several planets caught up in the Confederation Wars used the Terran firm of Felchow und Sohn as an escrow agent for their mercenaries' pay. Felchow was a commercial banking house which had retained its preeminence even after Terran industry had been in some measure supplanted by that of newer worlds. Neither Felchow nor Terra herself had any personal stake in the chaotic rise and fall of the Barnard Confederation; thus the house was the perfect neutral to hold the pay of the condottieri being hired by all parties. Payment was scrupulously made to mercenaries who performed according to their contracts. This included the survivors of the Dalhousie debacle who were able to buy passage off that ravaged world, despite the fact that less than ten percent of the populace which had hired them was still alive. Conversely, the pay of Wrangel's Legion, which had refused to assault the Confederation drop zone on Montauk, was forfeited to the Montauk government.

Felchow und Sohn had performed to the satisfaction of all honest parties when first used as an intermediary. Over the next three decades the house was similarly involved in other conflicts, a passive escrow agent and paymaster. It was only after the Ariete Incident of 2662 that the concept coalesced into the one stable feature of a galaxy at war.

The Ariete, a division recruited mostly from among the militias of the Aldoni System, was hired by the rebels on Paley. Their pay was banked with Felchow, since the rebels very reasonably doubted that anyone would take on the well-trained troops of the Republic of Paley if they had already been handed the carrot. But the Ariete fought very well indeed, losing an estimated thirty percent of its effectives before surrendering in the final collapse of the rebellion. The combat losses have to be estimated because the Republican forces, in defiance of the "Laws of War" and their own promises before the surrender, butchered all their fifteen or so thousand mercenary prisoners.

Felchow und Sohn, seeing an excuse for an action which would raise it to incredible power, reduced Paley to Stone Age savagery.

An industrialized world (as Paley was) is an interlocking whole. Off-planet trade may amount to no more than five percent of its GDP; but when that trade is suddenly cut off, the remainder of the economy resembles a car lacking two pistons. It may make whirring sounds for a time, but it isn't going anywhere.

Huge as Felchow was, a single banking house could not have cut Paley off from the rest of the galaxy. When Felchow, however, offered other commercial banks membership in a cartel and a share of the lucrative escrow business, the others joined gladly and without exception. No one would underwrite cargoes to or from Paley; and Paley, already wracked by a war and its aftermath, shuddered down into the slag heap of history.

Lucrative was indeed a mild word for the mercenary business. The escrowed money itself could be put to work, and the escrowing bank was an obvious agent for the other commercial transactions needed to run a war. Mercenaries replaced equipment, recruited men, and shipped themselves by the thousands across the galaxy.

With the banks' new power came a new organization. The expanded escrow operations were made the responsibility of a Bonding Authority, still based in Bremen but managed independently of the cartel itself. The Authority's fees were high. In return, its Contracts Department was expert in preventing expensive misunderstandings from arising, and its investigative staff could neither be bribed nor deluded by a violator.

From "THE BONDING AUTHORITY" by David Drake (1979)

For a ship moving at near light-speed, time dilation requires that in terms of your subjective, shipboard life span, the voyage won't be much more time-consuming than, say, one of Francis Drake's pirate raids.

This brings us to problem number three: Assuming there are adequate ships and places to go, and the crew's lifespans aren't a problem, why would fleets of expensive vessels be launched to go there? That's another way of asking the Big Question, and we'll spend the rest of this essay trying to answer it.

But before continuing, let's be sure we're all together. I suspect that the Big Question may have taken some of you by surprise. After all, there are abundant examples of terrestrial, trans-oceanic trade, which at first glance seem to provide models for interstellar commerce. For example, the Japanese import raw materials to their resource-poor islands, transform the materials into automobiles, send the finished goods across the Pacific, and sell them in the United States—and they make a lot of money doing so. Couldn't the same kind of thing work among the stars?

Not necessarily. The times and distances (and therefore the costs) involved are not analogous—not even close. The distance to the Sun's nearest stellar neighbor is approximately five billion times the distance from Japan to California. Therefore, the model of transoceanic trade is virtually useless.

It's often been assumed that there would be interstellar freighters and ore ships based on the trans-oceanic model, but is this assumption realistic? Consider the importation of raw materials to the Earth. Sure, resources might vanish from the Earth or become unimaginably expensive, although this is doubtful. Still, we won't be using starships to import raw materials. We can always mine the asteroids, or Jupiter's moons. They're millions of times closer, and therefore far cheaper. So unless there are minerals out there we've never dreamed of, and that we can't synthesize closer to home, we can forget about interstellar ore boats.

It's not raw materials that we'll lack in the solar system, it's cheap labor. But the cost of labor on Earth would have to be incredibly high to justify an interstellar flow of manufactured goods. It's conceivable, of course. We can easily imagine a future political setup (the post office scenario) in which all nations on Earth are so bogged down with artificially high labor costs and archaic work rules that the "cheapest" Earth-made automobiles would cost, relatively, what a Rolls Royce costs now. But ask yourself—would even that kind of economic insanity justify an interstellar transportation system, with a 10- or 15-year (Earth viewpoint) transit time?

Probably not. The unions would take care (if they were clever) that terrestrial prices never got so high that the interstellar freetraders would have a competitive advantage.

Even if Earth was devastated by war (a common science fiction scenario), we could rebuild our factories faster than we could import finished goods from the stars. Remember, after the destruction of World War II, Western Europe was back in business within a few short years.

So we need to assume a really amazing manufacturing advantage that would make goods from the stars so valuable as to be worth the cost—and years of transit time—of shipping them to Earth.

Is that realistic? Maybe. Some goods are unique—like the products of newly created technologies. Ah, but would new colonies develop such technologies? And even if they did, there's always the risk of industrial espionage; and anyway, by the time the products got to their distant market (Earth), would they still be state of the art? A dozen years of transport time can dull a product's competitive advantage.

Besides, absent a new terrestrial dark age (another common SF scenario), interstellar shipments are going to be pretty much a one-way street. Earth will have technologies the new worlds need, at least in the early stages of our interstellar expansion. They (the colonies) will need goods from Earth, but not vice versa. In marketing terms, they're going to be like the natives of Bangladesh—we know they're out there, and they want what we produce, but what's in it for us? The problem for an interstellar merchant is finding something Earth can buy from the new worlds.

Well, what can the new worlds export? It'll be a long time until the new worlds are out-inventing Earth. All their technology will be old stuff, made with machines they took with them. But even old technology can be unique if it involves secret processes. Sure, but does Coke's secret formula justify the cost of interstellar freight? What else have they got?

Artwork is unique. Persian rugs are regionally specific, labor-intensive products. Havana cigars and French wines require special climatic conditions. Extraterrestrial analogs of such items could be traded. But it would take a lot of future Picassos, cases of Coca-Cola, bottles of Chateau Betelgeuse, Oriental carpets, and interstellar stogies to support a galactic merchant fleet. Anything else?

There's the possibility of Dune-like spice, or Star Trek's dilithium crystals, or some other wonder goods—but we can't count on their existence. For the moment, let's ignore this problem, and arbitrarily assume that something, say automobiles, will be worth shipping from one planetary system to another. This (the Toyota scenario) is our biggest, wildest assumption so far, but let's play with it for a while, and see how it goes.

If you were a star-faring merchant considering the purchase of a shipload of cars from, say, Epsilon Eridani, which is almost 11 light-years away from Earth, how would you know what market conditions were like on Earth? It'll take you 11 years (actually 10.8 or so, but let's not be fussy) to send a message to Earth ("Cars for sale. Want some?") and 11 more years to get a reply ("Yes, we'll take a few."). By the time you got that reply, the information would be 11 years out of date. Perhaps Marco Polo could operate like that, but things were somewhat different then.

Ah . . . let's assume that you don't need to send an inquiry to Earth. Instead, imagine that Earth is always broadcasting its needs, so you touch down on a manufacturing planet circling Epsilon Eridani (which we'll call "EE") and you get the latest info (11 years old) from Earth—"Hot market here for cars from EE." Fine. Now what?

Now you start thinking like a merchant. What kind of mark-up could you expect that would justify buying a starship-load of cars and tying up your capital (or paying interest on a loan) for the dozen years you would need to get those cars to your destination? I said a dozen years, because your ship will certainly be slower than the communications system. Bear in mind that you'd be making an investment in goods that might very well be obsolete when they finally arrived. And if Earth is dominated by strong labor unions (as they would have to be to make scarce, extraterrestrial labor a bargain) they'll have a full range of protectionist legislation to keep out cheap imports. And what kind of import duties would you have to pay in order to clear your cargo through Earth customs?

The only way your venture could work is if you could know, a dozen years in advance of your arrival on Earth, what your sales price and other costs would be. Could you? Maybe.

It's possible for that broadcast of Earth's needs to be some kind of continuing offer, containing price and terms, and by acting on it you could be assured of selling your cargo at those prices—even though your cargo would be a dozen years old when your ship arrives on Earth. That would require an automobile dealer on Earth to commit himself, years in advance, to pay a healthy price for cargo he hoped would be arriving—some day. Maybe his broadcast offer would say, "Irving's Interstellar Imports needs 100 cars, as of the year 2200. Will pay 30 Heinleins each, plus all import taxes, if they get here by the year 2224 (that's 11 years for Irving's offer to get to EE, and 13 more for the goods to be produced and sent from EE to Earth). This offer guaranteed by irrevocable letter of credit from Bank of Terra."

The "offer" would have to be officially registered somewhere at EE, and if you accepted it, that too would be registered, so the next interstellar entrepreneur arriving at EE wouldn't duplicate the order. Irving only wants 100 cars, not 100 million. A message would then be sent to Earth saying that the goods were on the way.

Would that do it? Perhaps, if there were strict laws that made that kind of deal a binding contract, if the Bank of Terra were still in business when you arrived, if there were no currency depreciation, and perhaps a thousand other things. Maybe a local branch of the Bank of Terra on EE would use that broadcast offer as collateral, and make you a loan equal to the cost of your cargo and the cost of the loan, plus some profit. Nice deal. Then you pay for the cars, leave the profit on deposit (with interest compounding) and you head for Earth to deliver your cargo to Irving.

The bank should do quite well, too. The loan is secure (it's backed by the Bank of Terra on Earth, and your ship is insured by Interstellar Lloyds). Your profit deposit is going to sit on EE, waiting about 24 years until you return. With a loan portfolio and a deposit base like that, interstellar banking should be a super-profitable industry.

When you arrive on Earth with your cargo in good condition, the Bank of Terra (on Earth) broadcasts to its branch (on EE) that everything's fine, and you can withdraw your funds. (We've just described how a "letter of credit" works today in international trade.) And observe, future bankers, that it can take decades for funds to clear. That's one hell of a profitable float. Faster-than-light communications would probably be a banking disaster!

Now you dash back to EE, most likely with an outward bound cargo arranged in the same manner. Both the trip to Earth and the return to EE take a short time, subjectively (about 2 or 3 years altogether, depending on how much beyond 99% of light-speed you're traveling), and when you get back to good old EE, you're a rich man—depending on the tax laws that have been enacted on EE during the 24 or so years of your absence.

That sounds like it could be workable, but does this Toyota scenario make any sense? Would an automobile dealer on Earth (or any other interstellar destination) offer to pay for a shipload of cars (or whatever) which wouldn't arrive for two dozen years?

It's unlikely, but not impossible. A deposit of 20¢ now, compounding annually at only 7% per year, grows to $1 in 24 years. At an interest rate of 10% per year, you only need to deposit about 10¢. So our terrestrial auto dealer only has to put up a small deposit now with the Bank of Terra to have the payment guaranteed in 24 years. And, if the deposits come from his customers, the auto dealer isn't even investing his own funds. The only risks are structural ones—the bank may fail, the laws may change, the currency may depreciate, there may be war, plague, and so on. But these are risks that could be faced, and gladly—if the lure of huge profits were there.

It makes even more sense if the customer doesn't have to wait 24 years, which is possible. He makes his 10% deposit, then goes off on an interstellar trip, and returns to Earth a couple of subjective years later, while 24 Earth-years have passed, and . . . ta da! His car is waiting for him, all paid for. Of course it's an old-style car, but that's OK. He's technologically like Rip Van Winkle. Unlike Rip, he's still young, but he's hopelessly out of date, and not trained to use new vehicles. (We're assuming rapid technological progress, remember?) Interstellar travelers need old-style goods (and probably live in behind-the-times communities with their contemporaries) so the years of transit time your cargo requires turns out to be a desirable feature.

We're getting desperate now. We've got ships, we've got places to go. Time and distance are no problem. Compound interest makes long voyages worthwhile, and we've worked out a system of interstellar finance. We can even imagine some kind of commerce going on. But how can we get interstellar colonies organized and self-sufficient? Where will the funds come from? The Big Question looms as large as ever. Can it be done?

Maybe. Remember the tremendous profits to be made from the banking system, if only we could think of a way to get it started.

Surely, with wealth like that waiting to be made, someone will think of a way. How about this: Our venturers might not have to wait decades for a return on their investment. Remember time dilation—a round trip to EE takes about 24 years, Earth time, but only about 3 years, ship's time. Investors could get a much quicker payoff (subjectively) if they go along for the ride. Not that they'd have any desire to become settlers. All they want is to stay alive long enough to reap the rewards of their enterprise. A rich man could put part of his portfolio at interest on Earth, invest the rest in an exploration company, and then climb aboard ship. After 24 years have passed on Earth, he returns only 3 years older, finds a potful of money waiting for him in the bank (his left-behind deposit has multiplied five or ten times, depending on interest rates) and he also owns the beginning of a thriving business on EE. After another trip or two, he's incredibly rich, still relatively young, and now his investment on EE should be starting to pay off.

This is the scenario of star-traveling investors, who become centuries old by Earth's reckoning, with fortunes (and maybe families) established on several worlds. It's quite possible that something like this will happen. In fact, this scenario is so tempting that it may be the answer to the Big Question!

All right. Star-traveling investors and bankers will pay for the first ships.


In the May 1989 issue of Analog, in an article titled "The Economics of Interstellar Commerce," I explained that even if there were no technological barriers to star travel, a species nevertheless needs economic incentives to build ships and go voyaging to other stars. The investment required for star travel is huge; the payoff is centuries (or at best, decades) away. Why would any species bother with such a costly activity, except perhaps for the extravagance of a few exploratory ships?

The only motivation I could think of to justify the multi-generational expense of establishing extra-solar colonies would be the combined benefits to be derived from time dilation and compound interest.

Greatly simplified, my idea was this: What will ultimately lure investors' money into building starships won't be the stars, it'll be superfast compound interest (relativistically speaking). Your Earth-bound bank account, piling up interest over the decades, would make you rich when you returned, still young, after a long interstellar voyage. (This is relativity's famous "twin paradox," applied to you and your bank account.) I predicted that it would probably be star-traveling (and thus long-lived) bankers who found it profitable to invest in starting mankind's interstellar expansion. Only after the passage of centuries might other activities justify the continuing expense of maintaining fleets of starships.

And if I'm right about this, then we may seem to be alone for a very understandable reason—no other species has seeking motivation.

To prove my point about the primacy of economics, consider the sad status of SETI—the Search for Extra-Terres-trial Intelligence. SETI is cheap; all it really requires is off-the-shelf radio technology. Yet in the absence of a profit motive, we can't even keep SETI afloat. You can imagine, therefore, how impossible it would be to raise funds for a fleet of non-profit starships—even if they weren't all that difficult to build.

I don't want to minimize the technological end of things, but interstellar travel really boils down to this: Assuming a species' engineers can do the job, economics is the whole ball of wax.

Could economics be the key missing factor in the Drake equation, as well as an explanation for the Great Silence? Drake himself suspects something like this. Could this explanation apply to every intelligent species in the galaxy? I think so. Consider this:

What does it take to develop our particular brand of economic incentives? It requires that a species generate several intellectual concepts, and that they take each of these concepts seriously. At minimum, they need: (1) private property; (2) money; (3) interest; (4) commercial banking; (5) merchant banking; (6) joint-stock companies; (7) financial markets; (8) accounting systems; and (9) a free-market economic system.

Observe that none of these requirements is an engineering development. None is a tangible technological achievement. Each is invisible, intangible, and abstract. None is inevitable. Therefore, it seems probable that our from being universal; it could actually be unique to us, and incomprehensibly "alien" to other species in our galaxy.

We have no difficulty assuming that many intelligent aliens will develop technology, because technology depends on observing and rationally responding to the tangible, objective world. Any reasonably bright, land-dwelling, tool-wielding species can eventually do that (although in retrospect, it certainly took us long enough). But what is the likelihood of another species' hitting upon and adopting every single one of the abstract economic ideas listed above? Most of the human cultures in Earth's past (and even today) would fail such a test.

A hive-like species, or a species that lives in communes, or that is always dominated by tyrants, or which consists of solitary individuals, may be scientifically brilliant and extraordinarily curious, but they will probably never develop the essential concepts of banking and interest and commercial finance that make interstellar travel a profitable, affordable activity.

To such aliens, our "mysterious" banks, our profit-seeking corporations, our compound-interest calculations (so vital to time-dilated star travelers), and certainly our stock exchanges, might be viewed as exotic manifestations of a bewildering alien religion. Even after studying us, they may utterly fail to grasp our motivation (or would they call it obsession?) for transporting cargo between the stars.

Well, I was looking for a "good Great Silence." I think I've found it.

The economic explanation tells us why, with the whole shining Universe beckoning to them, no alien species has ever been sufficiently motivated to build and launch ships to the stars. They're isolated, not by necessity, but by their own lack of imagination. They're not even sending out messages; nor are they listening for ours.

The Great Silence, therefore, is the silence of poverty. The galaxy is stagnant, with each alien species tragically isolated from the others. Each is a potential supplier of products and information, each is a potential buyer as well, but there is no interstellar intercourse. Not yet.

That's because we haven't arrived on the interstellar scene. When we do, we can be the merchant princes of the galaxy. Who cares if the aliens never understand that our traders, engaged in a ten-year (subjective) voyage, are primarily motivated by a century of compound interest piling up at home? As long as we're willing to build and fly the ships—and reap the profits—let the aliens think we're crazy!

We can do for the stay-at-home aliens what was done for us by the great railroad and canal builders, the merchant sea captains, the leaders of caravans. This is not merely the business opportunity of a lifetime, it's the biggest opportunity of all time! The Great Silence is our clue that the galaxy needs us—it needs us very much.

There's a lesson in all of this for those who like to dream up exotic, Utopian visions of mankind's future.

There are those who long for the day when we shall "progress" beyond the need for private property. They imagine that when we achieve that glorious un-propertied state . . . what? What happens then? They never say precisely what's going to happen. It's supposed to be obvious, and perhaps it is to them, but it certainly isn't obvious to me. Presumably they imagine that when we finally achieve that "lofty" level of existence, we'll automatically start building starships—somehow.

But it doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny. Your savings account and mutual fund shares and insurance policies aren't keeping mankind from the stars. When the Utopian day of socio-economic "liberation" comes, we'll have a society modeled after such "noble" people as the North American Indians—people who, to their everlasting misfortune, had not developed our economic incentives, or even the concept of land ownership—people who therefore (causal linkage implied here) numbered among their greatest accomplishments such technological wonders as ... the loincloth. (I can hear the knees jerking out there, so let me hasten to add that I'm criticizing an economic system, not a race.)

Those "thinkers" who imagine that we shall become an "advanced" star traveling species when we have developed "beyond" such "primitive" concepts as ownership of private property are dreaming of a future that can never be. You can have a society without property, or you can have the stars. You cannot have both.

So there it is—the likeliest reason why we seem to be alone—we're the only capitalists in the cosmos. And if that's really true, then even though the Universe is seething with intelligent life and probably has been for hundreds of millions or possibly billions of years, we have absolutely nothing to fear. Ladies and Gentlemen of Earth, I bring you tidings of great joy: The stars belong to us!

From THE WEALTH OF GALAXIES by Warren Salomon (1989)

In the field of stability, perhaps one of the most useful ideas is the concept of feedback. Feedback is a flow of information that has a reciprocating and moderating influence on organizational behavior. Information generated by the system and presented as output is fed back in as input via a "feedback loop." The system thereby keeps an eye on itself and becomes better able to establish and maintain a state of homeostatic equilibrium. Sudden stimuli applied randomly to the system and wildly oscillating inputs are quickly "damped" out.

Theoretically a well-designed extraterrestrial governmental organization possessing no time delays in feedback should be capable of instantaneous response to disruptive influences and should exhibit perfect dynamic stability. However, time delays are inherent in all real physical systems, and this problem will be further exacerbated in the case of interstellar systems because of the comparatively large lag times in transportation and communication between the stars. And whenever delays exist in any system, any variation by one of the quantities moderated by the feedback loop may be perpetuated indefinitely.

In other words, without multiple control loops certain disturbances introduced in one corner of a galactic empire could propagate throughout the system, reverberating in continuous oscillations instead of settling down. According to systems analysts, galactic governments should be designed to be "resilient" with "soft failure modes" (nonlethal), When unexpected events occur, a well-designed xenopolitical system will not collapse but rather will degrade gradually.

Tim Quilici of Rockwell International has devised a very simple "systems" model of an interstellar economics system to illustrate the basic concept of feedback (see below). Using a single loop mechanism, a socialistic alien government attempts to hold stable the price of some valuable trade commodity — say, "positronic brains" — by controlling supply.

The "brains" are manufactured on the Capitol World, a center of industrial development and political control, and are shipped to Outback 10 light-years away. Communication is via microwave, but interstellar freighters can only make 25%c.

Demand for "brains" (to control the agricultural and mining robots on Outback) has remained virtually constant for the last century at 100 units per year. Suddenly, in 2400 A.D., due to poor weather and a series of unusually violent seismic tremors, demand begins to fall. Over a decade it drops to 50 per year, at which point it levels off and holds steady.

What happens to the price of "brains" that Capitol World is trying to control?

The demand for positronic brains on planet Outback is normally 100 units at the going price of $3×106 each, delivered F.O.B. from Capitol World. The government at Capitol wishes to hold the price constant by controlling supply.

In the figure above, demand on Outback drops precipitously from 100 units/year to 50 units/year, due to bad weather. This causes the price to fall to $2×106. By halving the number of shipments of positronic brains to Outback, the Capitol World government can force a return to the old price level.

Above is a block diagram of the proposed systems model of Outback economics. P(t) is the price of positronic brains on Outback. Q(t) is the quantity supplied to Outback by the Capitol World government. C(t) is the consumer demand on Outback for positronic brains.

Since Outback is 10 light-years from Capitol World, messages travel at 100%c, and interstellar freighters travel at 25%c, the communication delay dc is 10 years and the transportation delay dt is 40 years.

The system thus may be de scribed mathematically as follows:

P(t) = e • Q(t - dt) + e • C(t)

Q(t) = P0 / e - P(t-d0) / e + Q(t - dc - dt)

where e is elasticity, equal to 20,000 $/positronic brain.

In 2400 AD, Outback’s demand drops from 100 to 50 units in a single decade. Demand remains at 50 units for the next century.

When demand for positronic brains on Outback falls, so does price. The Capitol World government finds out 10 years later, by microwave communication. Shipments are immediately cut in half, but since 40 years’ worth of cargo is already en route, the effects of the cutback are not felt on Outback until 2450 AD. By 2400 AD, 60 years after the change in demand, price has returned to normal.

As we see from (the above), the decrease in demand on Outback causes an immediate price reduction there. Suddenly there is a glut on the market. The price remains low as too many new "brains" continue to pour in from Capitol World — which has not yet had time to react to the changed circumstances. The situation, in this simple model, is not fully remedied for 60 years following the initial disturbance. This suggests some of the difficulties inherent in interstellar commerce and government. Systems theory should allow similar modeling of the dynamic behavior of vastly more complex galactic organizations, provided their modes of operation and multiple feedback loops can be precisely and quantitatively specified.

Dr. James G. Miller, pioneer in systems science and president of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, has developed what is probably the most comprehensive and far-reaching general systems theory devised to date. Miller claims that his theory, and the principles which emerge from it, are applicable to all living systems from cellular lifeforms to organic societies. Xenologists expect that this work may profitably be extended to considerations of xenopolitical systems as well, primarily because of its general and universalistic approach to systems analysis at all scales of organization.

In his fascinating 1100-page monograph entitled Living Systems, Miller considers living systems at seven different levels of complexity: Cells, organs, organisms, groups, organizations, societies, and supranational systems. Based on fundamental notions of evolutionary unity, he then derives nearly 200 cross-level hypotheses which he asserts may be general characteristics of any living system. The following are six of these hypotheses which xenologists believe may have relevance to the problem of stability in xenopolitical systems at all cultural scales:

Hypothesis 5.2-2: The greater a threat or stress upon a system, the more components of it are involved in adjusting to it. When no further components with new adjustment processes are available, the system function collapses.

Hypothesis 5.2-10: Under equal stress, functions developed later in the phylogenetic history of a given type of system break down before more primitive functions do.

Hypothesis 5.2-11: After stress, disturbances of subsystem steady states are ordinarily corrected and returned to normal ranges before systemwide steady-state disturbances are.

Hypothesis 5.2-12: More complex systems, which contain more different components, each of which can adjust against one or more specific environmental stresses and maintain in steady state one or more specific variables not maintained by any other component, if they adequately coordinate the processes in their components, survive longer on the average than less complex systems.

Hypothesis 5.2-13: Under threat or stress, a system that survives, in the common good of total system survival, temporarily subordinates conflicts among subsystems or components until the threat or stress is relieved, when internal conflicts recur.

Hypothesis 5.2-19: The greater the resources available to a system, the less likely is conflict among its subsystems or components.

From SYSTEM STABILITY by Robert A. Freitas Jr. ()

All ship’s personnel are eligible for compensation over and above earned salaries. That compensation consists of a share of the voyage’s profit as determined by the ledger and certified by the Captain.

Share Distribution Table and Explanation:
OwnerThe Owner’s share consists of 20% of total profit before crew share distributions
CaptainThe Captain’s share consists of 10% of total profit before crew share distributions.
ShipThe remaining profit is distributed among the ship’s officers and crew based on their rank and/or specialty. Officers receive double shares while crew receive full, half, or quarter shares depending on rank.

Shares: Example

If a ship completes a voyage with the following officers and crew and the profit consists of 10 kilocreds:

Officers (each gets two shares):

  • Captain
  • First mate
  • Second mate
  • Engineer
  • Chief steward
  • Cargo master


  • Full share(5)
  • Half share (4)
  • Quarter share (4)

Total shares: 20

Owner: 2000 cr

Captain: 1000 cr

Ship: 7000 cr

The Owner would get 2000 cr. the Captain would get 1000 cr. The remaining 7000 cr are divided by 20. Each share in this example is worth 350 cr and distributed according to share rank with each officer getting 700 cr, each full share getting 350 cr, etc.

Note that the captain, as officer, gets 1700 cr — the Captain’s Share plus a Double Share as officer.


(ed note: This is about how to reduce traveling merchant mortality in the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk, transferring it into science fiction should be straightforwards.

In D&D there are the magic spells Revivify and Raise Dead to bring a dead person back to life. The magic spell Gentile Repose prevents a dead body from decaying.

In Rocketpunk there is Suspended Animation, freezing a person into a human-shaped block of ice and thawing them out at the destination.

In D&D the two "raise the dead" spells require an expensive diamond, because of reasons. A "cleric" is a priest or priestess of a god or goddess, they are the only ones who can cast raise-the-dead magic spells. "gp" means one gold coin, the standard unit of currency. A "murder hobo" is a mercenary soldier for hire.

The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

On Trade

How do great magic items, mystical cloaks, Elven and Dwarven armors, rare reagents, and unusual spell scrolls make their way across enormous distances to shops and ultimately the hands of Murder Hobos? Slowly and perilously, one laborious step at a time.

For example, Elves sell their armor only at the edge of their remote forest. A group of merchants trades rare reagents for the armor. Once bought, they pack the armor into a wagon and carry it over the mountains to a trading hub city. There, it goes on sale. A second group of traders buys the armor at a markup. They move it in a great caravan with other goods over a desert to a different city’s bazaar.

The armor flows through four or five different trading hubs on route to Murder Hobos. Each time the armor changes hands, its price increases. A merchant bought it for 100 gp here and sold for 400 gp there. Once it reaches the local market, the 40 gp worth of Elven time, materials and effort becomes 1,000 gp in the Magic Item Shoppes a thousand miles away.

Overland, long distance trade is dangerous and expensive. The roads are full of monsters, bandits, and weather-based peril. Routes shift with changing military and political conditions. Even through politically stable areas, preparation for travel requires pricey letters of passage and introduction. Otherwise local governments are certain to loot rich, foreign caravans for a quick payday.

Sea travel is marginally faster, safer and cheaper simply by avoiding politically unstable areas and rapacious local rulers. It certainly isn’t more comfortable – an oared craft with a hundred men still lacks a bathroom. Any boat might fall prey to murder, piracy and disease – even at the hands of their own captain and crew when they want the cargo more than their payoff for delivery. The loss of men, ships and cargos on the seas is so common wharf logs simply note shipwrecks as “Lost with all hands” and a small shrug.

Yet, the possible upside profit on a trading venture is so great people keep trying. Despite wars, bandits, piracy, disease, and death, a 1,000 gp Elven Magic Chain Shirt is still 1,000 gp. Considering a typical background set-filling peasant makes 1gp through an entire year of backbreaking labor and subsistence living, that 960 gp profit could turn some enterprising Murder Hobo into a Lord – for a single sale of kit. And the wagon holds twenty more where that came from.

So they keep heading out into the great beyond hoping to come back and make their retirement.

The God of Death

The dangers of overland trade present a golden business opportunity for the right person or trans-planar being.

A down on his luck God of Death contemplates the souls arriving on his Ferryman’s shores. Some are dead from disease, some from war, but a fair number from misadventure on the road. In recent years, the sea of souls turned into a trickle. His Church is in bad financial shape. Gods of Death just aren’t “in” this decade. It’s all light and happiness and harvest now.

With a lack of hard followers, various Gods of Death compete for scant believer gold coin to support their continuing faith. It’s bad financial times for Gods of Death everywhere.

This God of Death, being in the typical Anubis Ferryman-over-the-waters mold, isn’t a stranger to travel or travelers. It’s kind of his thing. He makes the same simple calculation the merchant Murder Hobos do. He can improve on the sad state of overland and sea trade and build a business model on this. He can change his nature from the pure Death business into the Death, Trade and Money business. This gets more believers into his church and widens his appeals to a certain kind of believer clientele with money to burn.

This God of Death sends his Clerics his plan via dreams and prophecy. And when the Clerics misinterpret that, via physical messenger. The plan will work and nothing could go wrong.

It works something like this:

At the beginning of the journey, the Clerics kill all the passengers with something pleasant and painless specifically made for their comfort. They offer a nice poison to drink or use a convenient spell. People go take a lie down and quietly die in the Cleric’s care.

Souls of the newly dead collect in the realm of the Dead. They receive little chits identifying themselves as part of the God’s new Dead Caravanning Service. The Ferryman separates these souls from daily soul-ferrying commerce and sends them to the plush couches of the comfortable, upscale waiting rooms. The God’s servants offer the newly and waiting Dead complementary phantasmal drinks.

Meanwhile, Clerics cast Gentle Repose on their now dead merchant passengers (Gentle Repose is a magic spell preventing a dead body from decaying). A single 3rd level Cleric of the Dead can keep 10 corpses in gentle repose indefinitely. A higher level Cleric can offer a more economical service of more corpses on a journey per day aggregating the cost keeping travel prices low.

The caravaneers, still alive to drive caravan, goods, Clerics and bodies to its destination, pack the bodies in with the cargo. They figure body weight against the space of freight. The displacement is an overall plus: while bodies take space, the caravans no longer pack food, water, clothing, cooking goods, or other life or comfort articles for the merchants. They re-allocate that space for more goods on the trip, raising the trip’s possible end profits.

Once the caravan reaches the destination, Clerics cast Revivify. This is the lowest and cheapest tier of raise dead service costing the passenger 300 gp in cheap diamonds plus the cost of Clerical services (plus tip.) This is also the riskiest option – if the Cleric does not raise the client within one minute of waiving the Gentle Repose spell, the Ferryman waives the soul from the waiting area to the underworld ferry.

However, richer merchant clients of the Caravans of the Dead pay 500 gp in diamonds plus service plus tip for the more expensive Raise Dead which not only raises the body but also casts healthy neutralize poison and cures all non-magical diseases. Not only is the trip more profitable due to carrying more salable cargo, it’s a health tonic and spa. Merchants return from successful journeys healthier than when they left and free of all foreign diseases.

Who doesn’t want to return from a year-long trip healthier than when they left? It’s a great secondary level of service marketing.

The Church allows borrowing the price of the Revivify and Raise Dead Services against the future profits of the journey for a certain low-interest rate back to the Church so full cash payment is not necessary up-front for those merchant companies just starting out. Merchants can also “pre-pay” for their death and resurrection and death and resurrection services (two deaths, two raises, based on trade location and trade route) to guarantee first raise and resurrection priority services plus added comfort services in the Underworld.

The Church doesn’t bother with collections on deadbeats. Failure to pay simply means the Clerics re-kill the client and the God of Death will exact his payment in other less pleasant methods in His Underworld.

Sure, dying and returning is a traumatic ordeal but the Church provides “rest and recovery” rooms in their various franchised locations with attending Clerics waiting with glasses full of refreshing cucumber drinks on return from the Dead.

The Glorious Upsides

But why would anyone do this? And why is it suddenly so popular?

Dead merchants on a caravan of the dead no longer worry about getting killed by war, famine, or bandits. They won’t get fleeced by pirates, deal with a mutinied crew, or pay the dreaded Head Tax when passing through ports. Who wants to loot, steal or tax a big wagon full of dead bodies? Sure, they’re not actively decaying dead bodies (as long as the Cleric stays alive to cast Gentle Repose) but they’re still dead. It’s a real theft deterrent.

And there’s no boredom! Merchants die at one end of their journey, travel, and come back to life in some glorious, strange and different foreign city surrounded by new meta-humans to meet and greet! They can get right down to the business of wheeling and dealing, filling the wagons, acquiring cargo, and buying cheap to sell expensively. When it’s time to leave they simply die again, sit around in a comfortable quasi-death waiting room playing board games and reading the boardsheets from home (conveniently provided astrally) until it’s time to raise again.

Should the absolute worst happen to merchant bodies on their travels, should the boat sink in a storm, or the caravan get caught in a warzone, or bandits loot the entire enterprise en-route, well, the merchants are already dead. They’re comfortably dead, not hacked to bits dead. It could be so much worse! A Ferryman working for the friendly God of Death takes the poor merchant to the Underworld in style with same-day service. Of course, the Church refund the price for pre-paid Revivify or Raise Dead to the nearest living relative or estate. Those who die permanently in transit will receive a very comfortable afterlife. They are, of course, customers, and the Church hopes to service the next of kin on their next trade mission.

The More Glorious Downsides

So, this makes a ton of money for the Death Church. It is no longer contemplating Church Bankruptcy. But this financial scheme is not without its downsides.

First, me-too knock-off Churches pop up and sell similar services cheaper. How can a competitor price their services cheaper than 500 gp + Clerical fees + tip for a full Raise Dead? By raising the merchant bodies into undead to help with the journey and pay down the expenses. Undead don’t eat, they don’t need a bathroom, they don’t sleep, and they don’t take much more space than the original Gentle Reposed bodies. Now, of course, the merchants may experience some significant wear and tear on their bodies during the journey should they use a cheaper service from a second-rate Death God. But they keep more profits.

Second, finding Murder Hobos (mercenaries) to guard a caravan of bodies to ensure it reaches its destination might have minor challenges like, for instance, telling the Murder Hobos the caravan is full of dead bodies. Some Murder Hobos with different and/or competing God and religious-based arrangements may take issue with voluntary death and resurrection. This may cause the price of the Death God’s services to increase depending on the contracted services and the other objections.

There’s plenty of Murder Hobos who will do anything for adventure, murder, plunder, and a dozen levels, so during protection contract negotiation the Clerics leave out ‘what is in the wagon.’ Cleric business, they say. Things become awkward when the Cleric’s wagon erupts with live merchants who, just as quickly, disappear again. But these are Death Clerics. Around them, things get weird.

Third, the diamonds. If this Death God’s business is successful, and assuming it is, the Death God needs a continuous influx of diamonds to power the entire business scheme. Diamonds, of course, come from Dwarves who run the diamond mines. Trade here is equitable – Dwarves like gold, Clerics receive gold from pre-paying rich merchant customers, Clerics give Dwarves gold, and Dwarves hand over diamonds. Clerics burn diamonds on raise services. It all works.

Diamonds, it turns out, are not all that rare. The world’s crust makes them all the time. But they are difficult to extract from deep mines and that effort makes the Dwarven services valuable. The preferred route for a Death God who builds his Godly Business on a mountain of bodies, Revivify, and Raise Dead is to enter into an exclusive contract for Dwarven diamond-based services.

The negotiations are tense. The Death God must deal with Dwarven Gods. It goes back and forth. Finally, the Dwarves agree to give the Death God and his followers an exclusive monopolistic line on the diamonds in return for a percentage of the successful fees and tips.

Dwarves don’t care. They simply desire a constant delivery of gold for doing, in their minds, nothing. While they are merchants, they have their ways of dealing with the horrors and problems of the long distance trade. They don’t need the Death God’s services but they do like his money.

The other Churches do care because, now, they must find replacement diamond suppliers for their own Revivify, Raise and Resurrection services. They require a new source of mining expertise – Gnomes, perhaps, whose mining gear occasionally explodes. The overland routes to the Gnomes are sometimes long and dangerous. Many routes involve peril, pirates and Murder Hobos. Big caravans full of diamonds are easy targets for greedy bandits and rapacious local lords.

Maybe instead of going to Holy War against the Death God over diamonds like they are clearly contemplating, the other Churches should take advantage of the Death God’s Caravans of the Dead.

From CARAVANS OF THE DEAD by multiplexer (2015)

(ed note: This is talking about sea-going trade in the 1600s, but it can be applied to a science fictional universe. Isaac Kuo says "When the rocket equation applied to the crew")

Gemelli Careri, an Italian adventurer, circled the world in the late 17th century. No part of his journey was more dangerous than the trip from Manila to Acapulco, made in 1697 on one of the deep-drafted, many-sailed boats known as the Manila Galleons. These trading ships spent more than two centuries delivering spices and luxury goods from Asia to the New World and Europe, earning enormous profits for their financiers, mostly Spanish colonists in Manila. But here is Careri’s description from Giro del Mondo (1699) of what life was like for their sailors:

There is Hunger, Thirst, Sickness, Cold, continual Watching, and other Sufferings … [The sailors] endure all the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh to soften his hard heart; the Ship swarms with little Vermine, the Spaniards call Gorgojos, bred in the Bisket … if Moses miraculously converted his Rod into a Serpent, aboard the Galeon a piece of Flesh, without any Miracle is converted into Wood, and in the shape of a Serpent.

The journey was interminable, the sea was unruly, the food infested. ‘Abundance of poor Sailors fell Sick,’ Careri writes. As a paying passenger, he would have had slightly better conditions than most of the crew. But status didn’t provide much safety: by the end of his journey, two officers, one pilot’s mate and the Captain Commander were buried at sea, their bodies dragged down by earthen jars tied around their ankles.

The captain died of a disease known as ‘Berben’, which according to Careri ‘swells the Body, and makes the Patient dye talking’. The second disease, and the most dangerous to the galleon’s sailors, ‘is called the Dutch Disease, which makes the Mouth sore, putrefies the Gums, and makes the Teeth drop out’. This one is more familiar – we know it as scurvy. For most of its two and a half centuries in operation, the galleon’s sailors died in droves of these and other heinous maladies, teeth rattling from their heads, boils blooming on their limbs like black flowers.

The Berkeley historian Jan DeVries found that some 2 million Europeans made trading voyages to Asia between 1580 and 1795. Of these, only 920,412 survived: an overall mortality rate of 54 per cent. European companies, DeVries concludes, sacrificed one human life for every 4.7 tons of Asian cargo returned to Europe. Of course, the Europeans spread their diseases when they travelled, and made liberal use of violence, so the suffering of the people they ‘discovered’ was even more awful than their own. But no less than colonialism itself, the unrelenting horrors of these sailors’ lives helped forge the world we live in.

The first Manila Galleon made the round trip between Acapulco and Manila in 1565, and then did it nearly every year until 1815. It was the last link connecting the Earth’s human populations. ‘As soon as the Spanish arrive in Manila,’ says Arturo Giráldez, professor of Spanish literature at the University of the Pacific in California, ‘we have a permanent connection between all the landmasses.’

Though much of the history of European exploration is told through fantastic tales of overland quests for cities of gold, the galleons, their owners and their crews had no more mythical or lofty goals than Maersk or other giant merchant shipping concerns do today. It was the seaborne quest for trade that bound the far reaches of the globe together, and it is trade that has kept the world connected.

Foremost among the objects of trade were spices. After being introduced to benighted Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades, Asian spices became spectacularly prized for both their taste and their purported medical benefits. For decades, the most desired spices, including nutmeg and clove, were grown only on tiny Pacific islands called the Moluccas. They came to Europe through complex overland chains of Asian and Arab middlemen, who each took exorbitant premiums.

Europeans soon realised that they had the means to cut out those middlemen: spectacularly advanced maritime technology. Trade in the Mediterranean had relied since antiquity on slow-moving galleys, driven by oars, hard to steer, and with shallow drafts that made them unfit for the open ocean. But advances starting in the seventh century had deepened keels, multiplied sails, and made rudders sturdier. This new breed of ship, which would become the backbone of the galleon trade, was fast and manoeuvrable, able to withstand stormy seas while carrying huge amounts of cargo and large cast guns.

Leveraging this new technology, the Portuguese reached the spice islands of Southeast Asia by sailing around Africa in the 15th century. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas prevented the world’s other then-great power, Spain, from taking the same route – so they started searching for a westward path, by way of the New World.

The first to confront the task was Ferdinand Magellan, one of the explorers least due the reverence granted by grade-school history lessons. Magellan’s Spanish fleet (he himself was Portuguese, real name Fernão de Magalhães) left Seville in 1519, rounding the tip of South America and crossing to Asia in 99 days. Even that brief journey was more than Magellan had prepared for: by the time the fleet reached Guam, his sailors were gnawing on the leather fittings of their sails out of hunger.

Worse, Magellan didn’t know how to sail back to Mexico. Today’s carbon-fuelled ships can largely ignore the forces swirling around them, and simply follow the straightest possible line to their destination. But in the age of sail, wind and currents were a ships’ fuel. Corralled by the great forces of lunar gravitation, climate, and the Earth’s rotation, the oceans travel great looping paths that remain steady for centuries. These were the highways of European exploration and trade. While Magellan had known where to find the westward current to Asia, he didn’t know the way back.

On 27 April 1521, Magellan got himself killed in a local conflict in the Philippines, and his fleet fell apart. His ship, the Trinidad, attempted to sail back across the Pacific the way it had come. It spent months being pushed back to Asia – the naval equivalent of trying to climb up the down escalator – before the crew finally surrendered in despair to local Portuguese forces. The second ship, the Victoria, took an existing westward route home, rounding Africa and returning to Spain in September 1522, completing the first full circumnavigation of the Earth.

It was a historic milestone, but no model for a profitable trade route. For that, the Spanish needed to find the return route from Manila to Mexico, the eastward leg of the Pacific Gyre. They spent decades searching for it, before finally succeeding thanks to the sailor-monk Andrés de Urdaneta. A different breed altogether from Magellan, and far more deserving of memorialisation, Urdaneta was thoughtful and devout. He had stayed for 9 years on the Moluccas after an ill-fated 1525 Spanish expedition, so he knew the region well. He was 66 and a man of the cloth in Mexico City when, in 1564, the Spanish crown drafted him to help finish Magellan’s work.

Urdaneta served as pilot of a small fleet under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi. The fleet, first following Magellan’s route westward from Mexico, captured the Philippines for Spain, and established Manila as a Spanish commercial base. In 1565, acting on local knowledge gleaned during his lengthy stranding on the Moluccas, he guided one ship, the San Pablo, north from Manila along the coast of Japan. There, he found the northward Kuroshio Current – the first leg of a great watery highway that soon turned eastward, towards Mexico. This, at last, was the long-dreamed of tornaviaje, or return. Finding it was Urdaneta’s greatest accomplishment.

The narrow thread of force that connected Manila to Acapulco was, as it turns out, much less friendly to humans than its westward counterpart. The 11,500 miles Urdaneta crossed while returning to Mexico was then the longest sea journey ever made without landing. He took on no fresh water or food for more than four months. Much of the journey, as Careri would attest more than a century later, was both stormy and frigid. By the time they reached land again, Urdaneta’s crew was exhausted and malnourished. What they weren’t, mostly, was dead. In light of what followed, this is astounding.

One or two ships sailed Urdaneta’s route each year for the next two and a half centuries. The Manila Galleons were immensely profitable, with the lion’s share of the proceeds flowing to the Spanish colonists in Manila who financed and organised the trade. The ships arrived from Mexico laden with silver, which the Chinese badly needed for their rapidly expanding monetary system. They returned carrying not just Indonesian spice – Spain’s original object – but Chinese silk and porcelain, and Japanese jewels and preserves.

In Manila, life was leisurely, even beautiful. The work of administering the galleons took up only two or three months of a year, with the rest of the colonists’ time given purely to lavish parties, carriage rides, and social intrigue. The Spanish were singularly indolent occupiers, developing no aspect of the local economy except the galleon trade. They couldn’t even be bothered to dig up the Philippines’ gold, currently calculated as the third largest reserve in the world. They were interested in profit, not in shaping the lives of the people they colonised.

Though just as one-dimensional as the conquer-and-plunder approach taken elsewhere by the Spanish, the Philippine occupation was different in one crucial way: the resource they were exploiting was not Manila’s metal, spice or opium, but its location between the spice islands, China and the New World. Europe was still in the grip of a mercantilist economic ideology that valued exports over multilateral trade. But the galleons’ amazing profitability showed, long before Adam Smith wrote it down, that national specialisation was the source of wealth, and those who conquered the distance between regions could reap that wealth.

The galleons ushered in global capitalism in another, bleaker way. Friedrich Engels, observing the disease, malnourishment and suffering rampant in London’s nightmarish 19th-century slums, would write that ‘everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch’. Engels was wrong. The age of sail gave us the same kind of horror, or worse.

The crossing that Urdaneta first completed in four months took longer for the less savvy sailors who followed in his wake: five months, sometimes as many as eight, with no fresh water but from rain, and no fresh food but from the sea. Never before had humans been so isolated from their natural environment, for so long, in such numbers. Centuries before the slums of industrial Europe, the trade ships of the Pacific were full of sailors rolling in their own shit, starving to death, and ravaged by disease – a Breugellian vista of Hell, compacted into a boat. At times, the dangers grew too great. In 1657, the San Jose was found drifting off the coast of Acapulco, every last crewman and passenger dead.

The typical provisions of a trading ship consisted of salted, preserved meat, a variety of beans, wine, oil and vinegar and, usually in scant portions, luxuries such as honey, chocolate, rice, almonds, and raisins. But the most famous staple was hardtack, or ship’s biscuit. This was a sort of primitive granola bar made by baking a dense dough until it was hard as a rock. The process was supposed to preserve it, but the sea was merciless. ‘In every Mouthful,’ said Careri, ‘There went down abundance of Maggots, and Gorgojas chew’d and bruis’d.’

Gorgojo now means weevil, but there are multiple contemporary accounts of them feeding on crewmembers, so that meaning might have shifted. Regardless, various tiny creatures constantly besieged sailors’ veins and food supplies. Careri also describes soups swimming with ‘worms of several sorts’, and beans infested with maggots. The sailors had little option but to dig in.

Fishing provided psychological relief from this nightmare, but didn’t solve the underlying, disastrous problem: the total lack of fruit and vegetables. A certain amount was loaded on departure from Manila, but this was reserved almost exclusively for officers, and consumed within weeks. Those aboard could not have understood the chemistry or biology that made this so deadly. They saw only the consequences.

At around the third month without landfall, the sailors’ gums would begin to swell, while their energy flagged. As their condition progressed, the gum tissue became so swollen that sailors sometimes cut large chunks from their own mouths – and felt nothing. As lethargy overwhelmed them, the rest of their flesh began to decompose before their eyes, skin taking on the soft touch of fungus, and black ulcers swelling from it. This was followed by multiple organ failure and, ultimately, death.

Many between the 16th and 19th century reckoned scurvy a consequence of the malodorous vapours of the Pacific. Careri and many others knew that ‘the best remedy against it, is going ashore’ but exactly why wasn’t known. A scattered few had observed that fresh fruit cured the disease, but many seamen thought burying a victim up to the neck in dirt was also a powerful cure.

Even as their crews rotted alive, the galleons often carried Chinese ginger as part of their payload of prized spices. Though ginger was generally known for its medicinal as well as culinary properties, it was not understood that it is a source for ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, which is crucial to the body’s synthesis of collagen, the basic building block of our connective tissues and skin. In its absence, humans literally fall apart.

Those not killed by scurvy were at risk from another inescapable element of life on the galleons: severe crowding. Priests, who had free passage as missionaries, were sometimes crammed into cabins so small they had to rest their heads on one another’s feet. In 1767, aboard the San Carlos, 62 Jesuits were confined to a space meant for 20. They were then joined by 25 soldiers and a small herd of pigs. And these were the privileged: most sailors were expected to simply cram themselves into any available corner.

While all sea vessels are necessarily confined, the galleons had a particular problem. Space on these ships, especially on the return trip to Acapulco, was astronomically valuable. Their crowding embodied what the historian Jack Turner calls ‘the law of increasing exoticism’: ‘The further they travelled from their origins, the more interesting [spices and trade goods] became, the greater the passions they aroused, the higher their value.’ The returns on even small cargos from the East could be huge.

This led to some amazingly inhumane decisions by those in charge. Careri describes huge shipboard cisterns, designed to both store and collect water on the journey, being smashed to make room for goods belonging to an officer’s friends. This was practically an act of murder: sailors’ ration of water was already a mere two pints a day. Frequently, ships sailed without backup sails and repair supplies, and it was common practice to store the guns to save space, making them useless for repelling pirates, which often lurked in wait of the galleons’ precious cargo.

The most common product of severe crowding was infectious disease. Microbiotic fiends traversed the constantly moist membranes of passengers and sailors, breeding typhus (known as ‘ship fever’) and typhoid (a disease spread by fleas and ticks). These were later joined by new diseases of exploration such as yellow fever and syphilis, the latter discovered in the New World before spreading to Europe and, primarily by the galleons themselves, to Asia.

Disease was exacerbated by a primitive view of cleanliness among Europeans of the age. Though latrines that cantilevered over the ocean were available on some galleons, many sailors didn’t use them, instead shitting into the ship’s bilge, or even in the general hold. In part, Careri tells us, that was because of the incessant, brutal cold. But this indifference was widespread. The French sailor François Pyrard de Laval wrote in 1610 that typical Portuguese ships around India were ‘mighty foul and stink withal; the most men not troubling themselves to go on deck for their necessities’.

The lack of basic hygiene on ships illustrates the vast gap between early modern knowledge of geography and sailing on the one hand, and of the internal frontiers of the human body on the other. It was well-known that the world was round, part of the basis for the galleons’ amazing navigational leap. But few educated Europeans of the 16th and 17th century had more than the vaguest concepts of nutrition, infection, germs or the role of cleanliness in health. Most ships, even as late as the 18th century, relied for rudimentary medical help on a multitasking barber whose most effective tools were his enema syringe and tooth-puller.

This had deep intellectual roots. For the 15th and most of the 16th century, medical authorities were engaged in a kind of backwards march, blindly deferential to the second-century Greek physician Galen. Galenistic medicine was based on the theory of the humours, a set of materials with various qualities that had to be balanced within the body.

Advancement past this theory was hampered by a Papal ban on human dissection for research, not lifted until 1482. But a rationalistic approach to illness was, even then, centuries away. The Manila Galleons launched more than 30 years before the birth in 1596 of René Descartes, whose thinking would prove foundational for the very concept of an ‘experiment’. They launched precisely a century before Robert Boyle, in 1665, became the first to make biological use of the word ‘cell’. The connection between cleanliness and contagion wasn’t persuasively argued until John Pringle’s Observations on the Diseases of the Army (1752). The first controlled experiments showing the effectiveness of citrus fruits in preventing scurvy were performed by James Lind in 1747. In fact, they were the first properly controlled medical experiments ever conducted.

But there was more than simple ignorance behind the suffering of the galleons’ sailors. The ships were often suspiciously overcrewed. They could be sailed by 40 or fewer, but carried crew complements of between 75 and, as the ships grew larger, 200. In Vanguard of Empire (1993), Roger C Smith points out that this overcrewing was due to the (correct) assumption that many of the crew would die.

Providing better food was known to decrease mortality – emergency rations of higher quality were packed on all ships to aid the recovery of the ill (though Careri observed that most of that quickly ended up at the captain’s table). But providing higher quality food would have been a major expense for financiers, without greatly increasing the likelihood that a ship’s cargo would arrive intact – which is all that really mattered to them. In fact, since the bulk of salaries was paid only at the end of a round trip, allowing half of all crew to die would have been a double cost saving. And so the sailors wore the yoke of global commerce, were worked to death, and then forgotten.

The Manila Galleon was ultimately undone by its own success. The route was eventually worked by ships of almost every European power, albeit illegally. Merchant competition for Asian goods drove up prices, while cheaper manufactured textiles undercut demand. In 1770, the Frenchman Pierre Poivre began successfully cultivating nutmeg and clove in the Indian Ocean, ending the spice monopoly of the Moluccas. The final decades of the Manila line were marked by frequent losses (both maritime and economic) and half-filled ships. The last galleon ran in 1815.

By then, it was just one part of an expansive network of global shipping. Commercial steam power, which emerged in 1807 on the Hudson River, would eventually make that trade faster, more efficient – and much less deadly. The months-long Pacific crossing that killed a million men can now be made, even by the most leisurely of diesel container ships, in two weeks.

Reliable global trade underpins the unprecedented affluence now shared by many humans. In a better world, it might have spread its benefits even more widely. But today’s robust network, and the technology that underpins it, would likely never have appeared without a template to guide their growth. That template was crude, exploitative, unreliable – and very often, for the men whose bodies fuelled it, gruesomely lethal.

From CRUEL SHIPS OF PROSPERITY by David Z Morris (2016)

(ed note: the introduction to one of Poul Anderson's classic tales about interstellar merchant princes)

As it has before, and will again. The comings and goings of man have their seasons.

They are no more mysterious than the annual cycle of the planet, and no less. Because today we are sailing out among the stars, we are more akin to Europeans overrunning America or Greeks colonizing the Mediterranean littoral than to our ancestors of only a few generations ago. We, too, are discoverers, pioneers, traders, missionaries, composers of epic and saga. Our people have grown bolder than their fathers, ambitious, individualistic; on the darker side, greed, callousness, disregard for the morrow, violence, often outright banditry have returned. Such is the nature of societies possessed of, and by, a frontier.

Yet no springtime is identical with the last. Technic civilization is not Classical or Western; and as it spreads ever more thinly across ever less imaginable reaches of space—as its outposts and its heartland learn, for good or ill, that which ever larger numbers of nonhuman peoples have to teach: it is changing in ways unpredictable. Already we live in a world that no Earthbound man could really have comprehended.

He might, for instance, have seen an analogy between the Polesotechnic League and the mercantile guilds of medieval Europe. But on closer examination he would find that here is something new, descended indeed from concepts of the Terrestrial past but with mutation and miscegenation in its bloodlines.

We cannot foretell what will come of it. We do not know where we are going. Nor do most of us care. For us it is enough that we are on our way.

(ed note: the word "Polesotechnic" was coined by Poul's wife Karen Anderson from the Greek for "selling skills")

From INTRODUCTION: HIDING PLACE by Poul Anderson (1966)

It is a truism that the structure of a society is basically determined by its technology. Not in an absolute sense—there may be totally different cultures using identical tools—but the tools settle the possibilities; you can't have interstellar trade without spaceships. A race limited to a single planet, possessing a high knowledge of mechanics but with its basic machines of industry and war requiring a large capital investment, will inevitably tend toward collectivism under one name or another. Free enterprise needs elbow room.

Automation and the mineral wealth of the Solar System made the manufacture of most goods cheap. The cost of energy nosedived when small, clean, simple fusion units became available. Gravitics led to the hyperdrive, which opened a galaxy to exploitation. This also provided a safety valve. A citizen who found his government oppressive could often emigrate elsewhere, an exodus—the Breakup, as it came to be called—that planted liberty on a number of worlds. Their influence in turn loosened bonds upon the mother planet.

Interstellar distances being what they are, and intelligent races having their separate ideas of culture, there was no political union of them. Nor was there much armed conflict; besides the risk of destruction, few had anything to fight about. A race rarely gets to be intelligent without an undue share of built-in ruthlessness, so all was not sweetness and fraternity. However, the various balances of power remained fairly stable. Meanwhile the demand for cargoes grew huge. Not only did colonies want the luxuries of home, and home want colonial products, but the older civilizations had much to swap. It was usually cheaper to import such things than to create the industry needed to make synthetics and substitutes.

Under such conditions, an exuberant capitalism was bound to arise. It was also bound to find mutual interests, form alliances, and negotiate spheres of influence. The powerful companies might be in competition, but their magnates had the wit to see that, overriding this, they shared a need to cooperate in many activities, arbitrate disputes among themselves, and present a united front to the demands of the state—any state.

Governments were limited to a few planetary systems at most; they could do little to control their cosmopolitan merchants. One by one, through bribery, coercion, or sheer despair, they gave up the struggle.

Selfishness is a potent force. Governments, officially dedicated to altruism, remained divided. The Polesotechnic League became a loose kind of supergovernment, sprawling from Canopus to Deneb, drawing its membership and employees from perhaps a thousand species. It was a horizontal society, cutting across political and cultural boundaries. It set its own policies, made its own treaties, established its own bases, fought its own battles … and for a time, in the course of milking the Milky Way, did more to spread a truly universal civilization and enforce a solid Pax than all the diplomats in known history.

Nevertheless, it had its troubles.

From MARGIN OF PROFIT by Poul Anderson (1956)

Establishing Colony Trading

New interstellar colonies go through stages. They start out as wilderness planets seeded with groups of dirt-poor settlers in futuristic covered wagons, the goal is to grow the planet into a wealthy industrialized urban world.

This will be so much easier if the pioneers can earn some off-world credits so they can purchase off-world manufactured equipment that the local infrastructure is not up to supplying or supporting.

But how? What does the new colony have to offer?

They cannot manufacture consumer goods. They have no industrialization infrastructure. The point of this exercise is to obtain some.

Food is probably not going to be worth much (unless the colony is next to Trantor and has cargo starships). Interstellar transport charges will make even soybeans unreasonably expensive, unless starship transport is unreasonably cheap. If the colony is growing common foodstuffs their produce will be just like the food from zillions of other dirt-poor colony planets: a glut on the market.

If the planet has some rare and valuable mineral resources, the mining megacorporations would have found out beforehand, and probably prevented colonization efforts until they had finished strip-mining the planet. So the colonists would inherit a world minus any gold or uranium mines. Even if the megacorporation missed something valuable, chances are the mines would just turn into a Resource Curse, making the government leaders wealthy but giving the colonists nothing but poverty, open-pit mines, mountains of toxic tailings, and future superfund sites.

And a colony trying to export their work force for off-world money, they will quickly discover that uneducated manual labor hires are a deci-credit a dozen. Technical universities would help, but with what money will the colony pay the professors?

What are the colonists going to do?

If the new colony really wants to make money hand-over-fist, they need to find something unique to their planet. If you want more money and are willing to have more risk, you want something where fashion rules (fashionable goods initially make more money, but abruptly make zero money when the fashion changes).

In the spirit of "Everything Old Is New Again" a science fiction author would be well advised to use the trade secret of science fiction and examine real-world history. Unsurprisingly this futuristic colony problem has happened before.

The economic powerhouse that helped jump start a few scattered English colonies in North America and transform them into what would become the United States was The North America Fur Trade. The beaver pelts were an abundant in North America (since the Eurasian Beaver had almost been hunted to extinction), they made very warm coats to combat the frigid return trips to Europe, and the pelts were easily converted into superior fur felt. Best of all, the superior felt created a fashion trend for beaver hats.

The United States and Canada profited from the beaver pelts for about three hundred freaking years, until the animals became endangered and European fashion switched from beaver fur felt hats to silk hats in the mid-1800's. Yes, the value of beaver pelts abruptly fell off a cliff, but three hundred years at a premium price is an acceptable jump start.

So you, the science fiction author, will have to invent some zany product that the colonist can use to claw their way out of an agrarian economy. Exotic gemstone, unique spice, unsynthesizable narcotic, fashionable pet, use your imagination. Bonus points if it is a product that is not transplantable. You don't want the colony's monopoly evaporating because some slimeball smuggled a breeding pair of hyper-minks off-world to make a rival hyper-mink ranch. In Isaac Asimov's THE CURRENTS OF SPACE the planet Florina grows a silky fluorescent fiber called Kyrt which for some reason won't grow properly on any other world. The monopoly is safe. As it turns out the reason kyrt won't grow elsewhere is an important plot point with further ramifications.

Further grist for the science-fiction author's mill is that any such valuable zany product is going to attract poachers and smugglers. Since the product is the colony's only ticket out of poverty, they will institute draconian anti-poaching and anti-smuggling efforts. Probably part of the local military, and probably with summary execution on the spot.

Note that the planet's trade item exploitation might pre-date the colony. The North American fur trade came years before the British colonies. A merchant or merchant conglomerate may have a trading post manned by a lonesome factor who trades for the item from the futuristic equivalent of human fur-trappers or with the indigenous alien sophonts. There may be some friction as the colonists start competing with the factor.

Also note that if the colonists are using indigenous aliens to help "fur trapping", the results can be an ecological nightmare. It certainly decimated the beaver population in North America. For the Native Americans, beavers transformed from a common food animal into a vital trade item for White Man's sophisticated knives and other coveted items. The beavers were quickly over-hunted.


"His crew were standing drinks for all comers. Some of them were pretty dark above the collar, as though they'd been on a hot-star planet not too long before. And he had a lot of Imhotep furs to sell, simply fabulous stuff."

"He got the furs on Imhotep; he traded for them," Harkaman said. "Nobody gets anything off Imhotep by raiding. The planet's in the middle of a glaciation, the land surface down to the fiftieth parallel is iced over solid. There is one city, ten or fifteen thousand, and the rest of the population is scattered around in settlements of a couple of hundred all along the face of the glaciers. They're all hunters and trappers. They have some contragravity (small antigravity aircraft), and when a ship comes in, they spread the news by radio and everybody brings his furs to town. They use telescope sights, and everybody over ten years old can hit a man in the head at five hundred yards. And big weapons are no good; they're too well dispersed. So the only way to get anything out of them is to trade for it."

"I think I know where he was," Alvyn Karffard said. "On Imhotep, silver is a monetary metal. On Agni, they use silver for sewer-pipe. Agni is a hot-star planet, class B-3 sun."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

About halfway down the spine of the main mountain range, but set in the level country, was the Terran Trade Post. Its site marked a mid-point between the two major Styor (alien) centers. One housed the giant smelter-producer of kamstine, the other, Cor, the administrative headquarters for the whole planet. The rest of the country was carved into strips and patches which were the individual holdings of the lords. But Klor, except for the mines which were counted as personal holdings of the Emperor, was not rich picking. With the possible exception of the High-Lord-Pac, the aliens in residence on this frontier planet would be men of new families, or failures sent into limbo by clan exile, men under a cloud at home.

Terra's import was not kamstine, they had no use for the stuff, but fur. Those jagged mountains, showing their dull gray rock bones through patches of ochre vegetation, were honeycombed with caves, and most of those caves harbored musti in seemingly inexhaustible flocks.

There were bats of Terra whose silver-silk fur, had it been in sizeable skins, would have excited the trades with their beauty. But a pelt only fingers wide had no value. Man prospected the stars before he discovered the musti. Like the bats of his home world, the leather-winged flyers of Klor were nocturnal, but their wings had a spread of ten feet and the furred bodies they supported were in proportion. The fur was silky, with a delicate ripple-wave, or, as with the musti of the upper heights, a short spring-curl, shaded in color from the silver-grey of Klorian rock to the dark blue of her night sky. And one season's catch could raise the leave-pension bonus of a Trader to an upper-bracket income.

From THE SIOUX SPACEMAN by Andre Norton (1960)

     As a functioning unit in the Confederation scheme, (the planet) Beltane had been in existence about a century at the outbreak of the Four Sectors War. That war lasted ten planet years.
     Our main concern was that Beltane now seemed forgotten by the powers that had established it. Had we not long before turned to living off the land, and the land been able to furnish us with food and clothing, we might have been in desperate straits. Even the biannual government ships, to which our commerce and communication had sunk in the last years of the war, had now twice failed to arrive. (Beltane has a biological research installation, but only a small colony and little infrastructure)
     ...“Well, it depends upon what you term bad. The Committee has about decided it is a good thing on the whole. They like it that off-world authority has stopped giving orders. The Free Trade party is looking forward to independence and is trying to beam in a trader. (ed note: the colony broadcasts an advertisement of the trade goods they have to offer, hoping to attract a free trader starship) Meanwhile, repairs go first for lab needs; the rest of it slides. But no one, at least no one with a voice in Committee affairs, wants off-world control back.”...
     ...“And they had better give up their dreams of trade, too. The breakup is here and now, boy. Each world will have to make the most of its own resources and be glad if someone else doesn’t try to take them over—”

From DARK PIPER by Andre Norton (1968)

After the fringe, I tried to come back into the really big markets, in search of a killing. Guns, cosmetics, jewellery, and drugs were all hot markets, with constant demand and irregular supply. Anything in which fashion rules instead of utility is a good market for the trader — and that includes weaponry as well as decoration and edification.

From THE HALCYON DRIFT by Brian Stableford (1972)

(ed note: On the Free Trader ship Solar Queen, cargo apprentice Dane Thorson and medic Craig Tau are preparing lunch in the ship's mess.)

     “A Chief Ranger from Khatka just came on board,” he reported, carefully offhand, as he busied himself reading labels. He knew better than to serve fish or any of its derivatives in disguise again.
     “Khatka!” Tau sat up straighter. “Now there’s a planet worth visiting!”
     “Not on a Free Trader’s pay,” commented Dane.
     “You can always hope to make a big strike, boy. But what I wouldn’t give to lift ship for there!”
     “Why? You’re no hunter. How come you want to heat jets for that port?”
     “Oh, I don’t care about the game preserves, though they’re worth seeing, too. It’s the people themselves—”
     “But they’re Terran settlers, or at least from Terran stock, aren’t they?”
     “Sure,” Tau sipped his coffee slowly. “But there are settlers and settlers, son. And a lot depends upon when they left Terran and why, and who they were—also what happened to them after they landed out here.”
     “And Khatkans are really special?”

     “Well, they have an amazing history. The colony was founded by escaped prisoners—and just one racial stock. They took off from Earth close to the end of the Second Atomic War. That was a race war, remember? Which made it doubly ugly.” Tau’s mouth twisted in disgust. “As if the color of a man’s skin makes any difference in what lies under it! One side in that line-up tried to take over Africa—herded most of the natives into a giant concentration camp and practiced genocide on a grand scale. Then they were cracked themselves, hard and heavy. During the confusion some survivors in the camp staged a revolt, helped by the enemy. They captured an experimental station hidden in the center of the camp and made a break into space in two ships which had been built there. That voyage must have been a nightmare, but they were desperate. Somehow they made it out here to the Rim and set down on Khatka without power enough to take off again—and by then most of them were dead.
     “But we humans, no matter what our race, are a tough breed. The refugees discovered that climatically their new world was not too different from Africa, a lucky chance which might happen only once in a thousand times. So they thrived, the handful who survived.
     “They reverted to the primitive for survival. Then, about two hundred years ago, long before the first Survey Scout discovered them, something happened. Either the parent race mutated, or, as sometimes occurs, a line of people of superior gifts emerged—not in a few isolated births, but with surprising regularity in five family clans. There was a short period of power struggle until they realized the foolishness of civil war and formed an oligarchy, heading a loose tribal organization. With the Five Families to push and lead, a new civilization developed, and when Survey came to call they were no longer savages. Combine bought the trade rights about seventy-five years ago. Then the Company and the Five Families got together and marketed a luxury item to the galaxy. You know how every super-jet big shot on twenty-five planets wants to say he’s hunted on Khatka. And if he can point out a qraz head on his wall, or wear a tail bracelet, he’s able to strut with the best. To holiday on Khatka is both fabulous and fashionable—and very, very profitable for the natives and for Combine who sells transportation to the travelers.
     "I hear they have poachers, too," Dane remarked.
     "Yes, that naturally follows. You know what a glam skin brings on the market. Wherever you have a rigidly controlled export you're going to have poachers and smugglers. But the Patrol doesn't go to Khatka. The natives handle their own criminals. Personally, I'd cheerfully take a ninety-nine-year sentence in the Lunar mines in place of what the Khatkans dish out to a poacher they net!"

     "So that rumor has spread satisfactorily!"
     Coffee slopped over the brim of Tau's mug and Dane dropped the packet of steak concentrate he was about to feed into the cooker. Chief Ranger Asaki loomed in the doorway of the mess as suddenly as if he had been teleported to that point.
     The medic arose to his feet and smiled politely at the visitor.
     "Do I detect in that observation, sir, the suggestion that the tales I have heard were deliberately set to blast where they would do the most good as deterrents?"
     A fleeting grin broke the impassive somberness of the black face.
     "I was informed you are a man skilled in 'magic,' Medic. You certainly display the traditional sorcerer's quickness of wit. But this rumor is also truth." The quirk of good humor had gone again, and there was an edge in the Chief Ranger's voice which cut. "Poachers on Khatka would welcome the Patrol in place of the attention they now receive."

     It was Jellico who added the rest. “We are invited to visit Khatka and survey a new hunting range as Chief Ranger Asaki’s personal term guests.”
     Dane drew a deep breath of wonder. Guest rights on Khatka were jealously guarded—they were too valuable to their owners to waste. Whole families lived on the income from the yearly rental of even half a one. But the Rangers, by right of office, had several which they could grant to visiting scientists or men from other worlds holding positions similar to their own. To have such an opportunity offered to an ordinary Trader was almost incredible.

(VOODOO PLANET is available free from Project Gutenberg)

From VOODOO PLANET by Andre Norton (1959)

      Forty-two planets in all, from a couple of methane-giants on Gamma to airless little things with one-sixth Terran gravity. Alpha II had been the only one in the Trisystem with an oxygen atmosphere and life. So Gartner had landed on it, and named it Poictesme, and the settlement that had grown up around the first landing site had been called Storisende. Thirty years later, Genji Gartner died there, after seeing the camp grow to a metropolis, and was buried under a massive monument.
     Some of the other planets had been rich in metals, and mines had been opened, and atmosphere-domed factories and processing plants built. None of them could produce anything but hydroponic and tissue-culture foodstuffs, and natural foods from Poictesme had been less expensive, even on the planets of Gamma and Beta. So Poictesme had concentrated on agriculture and grown wealthy at it.
     Then, within fifty years of Genji Gartner's death, the economics of interstellar trade overtook the Trisystem and the mines and factories closed down. It was no longer possible to ship the output to a profitable market, in the face of the growing self-sufficiency of the colonial planets and the irreducibly high cost of space-freighting.
     Below, the brown fields and the red and yellow woods were merging into a ten-mile-square desert of crumbling concrete—empty and roofless sheds and warehouses and barracks, brush-choked parade grounds and landing fields, airship docks, and even a spaceport. They were more recent, dating from Poictesme's second brief and hectic prosperity, when the Terran Federation's Third Fleet-Army Force had occupied the Gartner Trisystem during the System States War.
     Millions of troops had been stationed on or routed through Poictesme; tens of thousands of spacecraft had been based on the Trisystem; the mines and factories had reopened for war production. The Federation had spent trillions of sols on Poictesme, piled up mountains of stores and arms and equipment, left the face of the planet cluttered with installations.
     Then, ten years before anybody had expected it, the rebellious System States Alliance had collapsed and the war had ended. The Federation armies had gone home, taking with them the clothes they stood in, their personal weapons and a few souvenirs. Everything else had been left behind; even the most expensive equipment was worth less than the cost of removal.
     Ever since, Poictesme had been living on salvage. The uniform the first officer was wearing was forty years old—and it was barely a month out of the original packing. On Terra, Conn had told his friends that his father was a prospector and let them interpret that as meaning an explorer for, say, uranium deposits. Rodney Maxwell found plenty of uranium, but he got it by taking apart the warheads of missiles.

     Conn turned to Colonel Zareff. "I noticed extra workers coming out from the hiring agencies in Storisende, and the crop was all in across the Calders. Big wine-pressing this year?"
     "Yes, we're up to our necks in melons," the old planter grumbled. "Gehenna of a big crop. Price'll drop like a brick of collapsium, and this time next year we'll be using brandy to wash our feet in."
     "If you can't get good prices, hang onto it and age it. I wish you could see what the bars on Terra charge for a drink of ten-year-old Poictesme."
     "This isn't Terra and we aren't selling it by the drink. Only place we can sell brandy is at Storisende spaceport, and we have to take what the trading-ship captains offer. You've been on a rich planet for the last five years, Conn. You've forgotten what it's like to live in a poorhouse. And that's what Poictesme is."

     Inside, Kurt Fawzi's laborers were floating out cargo for the ship—casks of brandy, of course, and a lot of boxes and crates painted light blue and marked with the wreathed globe of the Terran Federation and the gold triangle of the Third Fleet-Army Force and the eight-pointed red star of Ordnance Service. Long cases of rifles, square boxes of ammunition, machine guns, crated auto-cannon and rockets.
     "Where'd that stuff come from?" Conn asked his father. "You dig it up?"
     His father chuckled. "That happened since the last time I wrote you. Remember the big underground headquarters complex in the Calders? Everybody thought it had been all cleaned out years ago. You know, it's never a mistake to take a second look at anything that everybody believes. I found a lot of sealed-off sections over there that had never been entered. This stuff's from one of the headquarters defense armories. I have a gang getting the stuff out. Charley and I flew in after lunch, and I'm going back the first thing tomorrow."
     "But there's enough combat equipment on hand to outfit a private army for every man, woman and child on Poictesme!" Conn objected. "Where are we going to sell this?"
     "Storisende spaceport. The tramp freighters are buying it for newly colonized planets that haven't been industrialized yet. They don't pay much, but it doesn't cost much to get it out, and I've been clearing about three hundred sols a ton on the spaceport docks. That's not bad, you know."
     Three hundred sols a ton. A lifter went by stacked with cases of M-504 submachine guns. Unloaded, one of them weighed six pounds, and even a used one was worth a hundred sols. (which would make it worth 33,300 sols per ton)

     "I noticed you suggested building a spaceship and agreed with the professor about building a computer. What was your idea? To take their minds off hunting for the Brain and keep them busy?"
     Conn shook his head. "I'm serious about the ship—ships. You and Colonel Zareff gave me that idea."
     His father looked at him in surprise. "I never said a word in there, and Klem didn't even once mention—"
     "Not in Kurt's office; before we went up from the docks. There was Klem, moaning about a good year for melons as though it were a plague, and you selling arms and ammunition by the ton. Why, on Terra or Baldur or Uller, a glass of our brandy brings more than these freighter-captains give us for a cask, and what do you think a colonist on Agramma, or Sekht, or Hachiman, who has to fight for his life against savages and wild animals, would pay for one of those rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition?"
     His father objected. "We can't base the whole economy of a planet on brandy. Only about ten per cent of the arable land on Poictesme will grow wine-melons. And if we start exporting Federation salvage the way you talk of, we'll be selling pieces instead of job lots. We'll net more, but—"
     "That's just to get us started. The ships will be used, after that, to get to Tubal-Cain and Hiawatha and the planets of the Beta and Gamma Systems. What I want to see is the mines and factories reopened, people employed, wealth being produced."
     "And where'll we sell what we produce? Remember, the mines closed down because there was no more market."
     "No more interstellar market, that's true. But there are a hundred and fifty million people on Poictesme. That's a big enough market and a big enough labor force to exploit the wealth of the Gartner Trisystem. We can have prosperity for everybody on our own resources. Just what do we need that we have to get from outside now?"
     His father stopped again and sat down on the edge of a fountain—the same one, possibly, from which Conn had seen dust blowing as the airship had been coming in.
     "Conn, that's a dangerous idea. That was what brought on the System States War. The Alliance planets took themselves outside the Federation economic orbit and the Federation crushed them."
     Conn swore impatiently. "You've been listening to old Klem Zareff ranting about the Lost Cause and the greedy Terran robber barons holding the Galaxy in economic serfdom while they piled up profits. The Federation didn't fight that war for profits; there weren't any profits to fight for. They fought it because if the System States had won, half of them would be at war among themselves now. Make no mistake about it, politically I'm all for the Federation. But economically, I want to see our people exploiting their own resources for themselves, instead of grieving about lost interstellar trade, and bewailing bumper crops, and searching for a mythical robot god."
     "You think, if you can get something like that started, that they'll forget about the Brain?" his father asked skeptically.
     "That crowd up in Kurt Fawzi's office? Niflheim, no! They'll go on hunting for the Brain as long as they live, and every day they'll be expecting to find it tomorrow. That'll keep them happy. But they're all old men. The ones I'm interested in are the boys of Charley's age. I'm going to give them too many real things to do—building ships, exploring the rest of the Trisystem, opening mines and factories, producing wealth—for them to get caught in that empty old dream."

From GRAVEYARD OF DREAMS by H. Beam Piper (1958)


Rob Garitta's Planet Zaonia is sort of like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in space. It is a tiny interstellar colony with backwards technology which manages to become a galactic trade powerhouse by innovative use of "obsolete" tech.

Careful study of Zaonia will give you all sorts of idea along these lines.


     The planet  Zaonia (0104 C885655-5  Ag Ri    123) in the Vergant Subsector had a problem. It was a rich agricultural world and numerous traders stopped there to buy food for other less bountiful worlds. The problem was many of these traders had forged identities to hide the fact they were skipping on their bank payments. Worse some traders came representing companies well known and licensed by the Zaon nobility for offworld exporting. They refuelled using the companies' credit lines (and resupplied their ships) passed bad checks or paid with counterfeit credits and left never to be seen again.

     The banks that had mortgaged the ships that were skipping were not pleased.

     The companies that paid to be allowed to export goods from Zaonia were not pleased.

     The local merchants and starport authorities who were stiffed regularly were not pleased.

     The nobles who ruled based on their control and use of technology were made to look like idiots. High technology was just too good at copying documents their local technology could not discern.

     There was a light at the end of the tunnel though. One of the local knights had traveled offworld in his youth and had a membership in the Outreach Association. He used it to travel to a nearby spaceport and spoke with the various members there. The Outreach Association did not like when a world's commerce and star travel dried up. They sent him to the bank. The knight returned several months later with a number of binders. The binders and the paper sheets inside had to be specially ordered and cost nearly as much as his passage.

     Everyone mortgaging a ship has to submit proof of identity you see. This consists of retina imaging, fingerprints, DNA and finally they sign off on the loan the old fashioned way. Banks are very traditional.

     Zaonia didn't have the technology for retinal or DNA scans. Importing offworld gear would erode the nobility's authority. Fingerprints could be faked with high tech prosthetics well enough to fool the locals. So the Zaons began checking signatures.

     Handwriting is very hard to fake. People who use thumbprints and eye scans for ID don't know that. In fact the banks only took the signatures as a tradition. But the Zaons write quite a lot by hand: letters, legal forms, sometimes whole books! They also had a few graphologists who were very good for forensic work. They gave them new jobs at the starport and waited. As soon as someone came along with a ship that was listed as mortgaged (or even not) his handwriting was checked against bank records and by the pros.

     They might hack and fake ship IDs and transponders and licenses but faking a signature on demand was too hard. They'd mess up their sign in sheet or sign a bad check badly and get busted on the way back to their ship. The better writing analysts could tell from changes in signatures whether the signers were nervous or ill or under the influence which certainly interested the local creditors. Scams dropped to tolerable levels.

     The banks got several ships that skipped payments repossessed. They were happy.

     The companies saw the license poachers jailed. They were happy.

     The local merchants had a reasonable chance of being paid. They were happy.

     The nobles seized several ships that were owned outright by their captains and began outfitting them as a small trade fleet for exporting handcrafted local wares. They were happy.

     What did the nobility export? Illuminated manuscripts.

     Forgery can mean different things to people at different technological levels. Analysts can analyze a signature for authenticity and their expert opinion is admissible as evidence in many courts today. Some cultures may view signatures as a quaint custom, writing being hardly used anymore. This can bite them on the rear in numerous ways as indicated.

     Writing things down is one of the most secure forms of data entry. Bad guys might hack your computer or use fancy gadgets to read your monitor from a distance. But a notebook is immune to all that (and also EM pulses and viruses). Some navigators might even keep a written log or rutter with information on charting the best course on a given route with precomputed steps they found to work.

     Of course this could also lead to the ultimate secure fund transfer system: the letter of credit.

From THE WRITING ON THE HULL by Rob Garitta (2016)

     After putting a stop to fraud the Tech Knights of Zaonia (0104 C885655-5  Ag Ri    123) saw more opportunity for economic growth. In an interstellar polity that had all manner of cyber crime their security was an order better than most simply because it did not rely on computers. The First Bank of Zaonia worked on a system of handwriting. People who were recognized customers had their signatures filed and simply signed for things. That was the first level of security. The second level of security involved established handshakes, photos, mannerisms and yes passwords ... that were spoken to confirm identity.

     No hacker could break the system. Any impersonations would require a master forger, who was also expertly disguised, and managed to learn memorized passwords and recognition cues from the customer. That was a tall order for most.

     The subsector nobility noticed and began making deposits in the banks in the form of precious materials. Lock boxes were used to hold various secrets: letters for blackmail, contracts for unholy business alliances, family heirlooms, and artifacts.

     Zaonia now had a foolproof defense against offworld invasion. Any would be conquerors would have to deal with their depositors, who were not, the sort to let their valuables fall to others.

     Raids were the problem. The security forces had rifles and submachine guns. Manpower was there. they could get a lot of men with rifles or submachine guns and mass them at bank vaults. That wasn't good enough. raiders with battle dress would probably have surprise and high energy weapons.

     Worse, high energy cutters could let them into the best vault the locals produced in a few minutes. Offworld experts agreed. The biggest most massive bank the Zaonians could produce would fall to a determined force of offworld pirates.

     The locals could hire mercenaries with high tech weapons to guard their bank but that involved offworld technology which the local technocrats did not produce. This would undermine their expertise and authority and what would keep the mercenaries from looting the bank themselves or looking the other way when bribed?

     So the locals built not one bank but many many banks. Small ones. They were still guarded pretty well. they all had smaller but hardened steel vaults.  Most of them were empty.

     Armored cars shuttled between the banks on a daily basis. Most of them were empty but the few held valuables that were constantly shuttled between vaults on time tables known to only a few. Each of the schedule writers only scheduled a specific route, one of many. If anyone did hit the right bank or armored car that schedule writer would have hard questions asked. The schedule writers included watermarks specific to each armored vehicle crew. Any photocopies could be tracked to the person who lost or sold them.

     Raiders could hit a bank. They would be shot at by a number of guards. The hail of bullets would be too risky unless the raiders had battledress and still be risky even then. After fighting these defenders the raiders would open the vault, which could be empty. Ditto for the armored cars.

     Eventually the locals dug an underground roadway system (remember the cheap labor?) They dug stations under each bank to allow the cargo transfers to occur out of sight. By now the banking business was really taking off. It became a major planetary industry between, security, excavation, construction, maintenance, tank manufacture, and administration. A few people attempted raids but they got squashed quickly. Most of them hit the wrong bank or the wrong car or had a tunnel collapse on them. Oh yes: the tunnels were boobytrapped. They could make a suit of armor that could laugh at bullets, but no one made armor that stood up to a couple of tons of rock.

     Fortunately low tech does not equal stupid. After all, there are barbarians in space.

From THE BANK JOB by Rob Garitta (2016)

     Remember Zaonia (0104 C885655-5  Ag Ri    123), the little planet that could? Zaonia had instituted a system of handwriting analysis to prevent fraud in its starport. The planet had created a secure system of banking that its more populous and advanced neighbors envied and made use of. It even had a small fleet of free traders operating in its cluster.

     The Zaonians were secure. The dictator of Facesos, the ministers of Inerze, the recluse roboticists of Zerar were all customers of their banking system. Anyone invading and disrupting the security of their valuables would face their wrath.

     The Prince Admiral of Facesos, the plague ministers of Inerze, the recluse roboticists of Zerar didn't give a deuce about the fate of Zaonia, just the security of their valuables. A change of power that did not endanger those valuables was no concern to them.

     So when a young technocrat, one who had spent much of his life offworld, decided to make a push for power he first assured those offworlders he would respect their property (and in fact give them better rental rates on vault space).  Needless to say he told them this at about the time his offworld mercenaries commenced to land at the starport and major cities.

     The usurper was on a budget so battledress troopers were a small minority who seized the starport and secured the communications. The rest were troops with cloth armor and laser rifles who expected to wage a quick and relatively bloodless campaign of shock and awe.

     The poor bastards. In his years offworld the power monger had learned a little about high technology weapons. He had forgotten all about low technology warfare and that was his downfall.

     Now maybe the Zaonians could not build one radio jammer that could follow enemy chatter across many frequencies, but they could build a lot of jammers and keep them hid away (remember all those tunnels they dug for the banks? As for their forces, they used telephone lines and signal flares and carrier pigeons in some cases.

     Maybe they didn't have the camouflage armor and orbital sensors the invaders had but they had an elaborate tunnel system which they used to mount a series of counter attacks on the starport. When the battledress commandoes descended into the tunnels to root the locals out they faced a storm of heavy machineguns, flame throwers and demolition charges. The last straw was the armored cars the Zaonians had in the tunnels to transport valuables. It turned out bullet proof didn't mean you could laugh at an armored car parked on your chest. They mutinied about the time they figured that they would run out of commandoes long before they ran out of tunnels.

     On the surface the invaders now faced an artillery bombardment that turned out to be sand canisters modified to fire from field guns. Their laser weapons were now degraded so badly they had a third the range of the rifles the locals carried. The invaders did not have heavy weapons. The usurper didn't want to wipe out the planet he'd rule and well, he did have those pretty lasers and battledress commandoes!

     The usurper discovered the sand canisters were fired from a couple of destroyers off the coast. He demanded the landing craft commanders go airborne and shoot the destroyer up. The commanders, having seen the way the invasion was going stuck to the letter of their contracts and said 'No!' That turned out to be very fortunate for them as they would have met the submarine with the offworld missile turrets (that was still very hush hush.)

     Okay he tried to tell everyone the other Tech Knights had used offworld munitions. The sand canisters were a starship's weaponry for gosh sake! The Knight Senior explained it away as a naturally occurring crystal, not manufactured, merely polished. What the heck. They played fair (so to speak) with all other tech. The submarine with the missiles was still a secret.

     The Zaonians then turned to their depositors and explained that the rates were going to stay the same.
     No harm, no foul. The customers merely had stayed out of an internal dispute. That was fine. Zaonia was an honorable society. One less than honorable might put photocopies of a number of sensitive documents they were entrusted with onboard their small fleet of freighters to distribute to several interested parties should anything happen to their government. The offworlders thought copying documents required a computer. In fact carbon paper astounded some of them when they came visiting.

     As for the starport and capital that took a little repair work. It was awhile before they took the shot up and mangled battledress suits off the perimeter wall. they wanted to make sure people got the message.

     Better Low Tech than Dim Wit.

From THE BOTTOM LINE by Rob Garitta (2016)

     Besides all the so called legal banking business handled across borders and even worlds there are all manner of deals that no one in their right minds would ever call legal. Selling guns, bombs, and sex are all legal on some worlds, but none of these are legal on EVERY world if you get my drift.

     But bad people need to keep records of their deals and sometimes even a transcript to indicate exactly what one or the other had said. At any decent tech level a transcript can cause you severe trouble. To make one a talk-to-text-system is needed and the audio files of course can be examined for speech patterns, voice characteristics, probably even DNA by TL 15. Don't tell me that stuff gets wiped. It doesn't have to and then some punk has a shady deal to hold over your head. Note someone smart enough to make and secrete a copy of an audio file probably is smart enough to make several such copies and give them to various people for release upon their death.

     Enter the Zaonians yet again! Their handwritten records already put the brakes on forgery and fraud in their cluster. It seemed only fair that they do something for the crooks now (for a fee of course).  Now they stepped it up into a system of recording meetings and discourses of various types in great speed and and accuracy! I refer to stenography!

     If handwriting analysis was regarded (by those poor ignorant hi-tech folk) as mad science, steno was a glimpse of Great Cthulhu. You mean people can write as fast as they can talk?! Impossible! Untrusting souls would have to find a stenographer they both trusted or more likely hire their own and thus make their own transcripts. All this had to be carried out on Zaonia of course for complete secrecy. On Zaonia any bugs built with local technology would be about the size of a beer cooler and the tech knights were keen on keeping offworld tech offworld.

     In fact they even used psionics to sniff out hi-tech smugglers. Psionics isn't a form of technology! But I digress.

     The people interested in having their meetings transcribed would be brought to a secluded conference chamber. The recorders could in fact be ordered from several agencies with complete anonymity and ignorance of both parties to insure their honesty and impartiality. The stenographers would take dictation during the meeting using shorthand then typed out the transcripts. No voice files to incriminate. Accurate recordings of vital matters and agreements were made. Best of all no hard forensic evidence to identify the parties of the agreement in a court of law (though they knew who they were of course).

     The Zaonians still were security minded. When their banking guild set up an official agency to license and monitor stenographers they added additional procedures, such as the stenographers using a newly constructed system of phonemes for their note taking. Previously they used a more or less accessible phonemic writing system that could be discovered on library systems because it was commonly used in the past. The extra benefit of phonetic writing was the stenographers no longer had to know the language of the parties meeting. They could record it in their notes in their con-lang scrawl and type it up using a phonetic alphabet system common in the cluster. The original notes would only be of use to another agency scribe who knew the con-lang.

     The Voynich Agency was in business!

From THE MIGHT OF WRITE by Rob Garitta (2016)

     Near Zaonia  (0104 C885655-5  Ag Ri    123) lies the planet INERZE  (0202 B997A84-C 2    Hi In Cp    124). Inerze is everything that Zaonia isn't. Overcrowded, high tech and governed by an extensive bureacracy that rarely accomplishes much. The tainted atmosphere is due to the people. Directly. Inerze has regular outbreaks of new viruses due to the crowded living conditions. Mostly they cause sniffles and headaches to the people who have evolved a truly scary immune system. This also makes them a threat to anyone from offworld. The ills they think nothing of can incapacitate or kill those without the proper antibodies.

     You would think a high population world like Inerze (usually spelled in capital letters) would be a ready market for a small agricultural world. But that is not the case. A transport fee of 1 cr. per kilogram ( 1000 cr. per ton) will make many staples more expensive than locally grown products (we're talking algae, yeast and fungi here, an acquired taste but cheap). Also shipping to Inerze was by intermediaries after the first Inerzan Flu Epidemic on Zaonia. The risk caused increases to shipping costs. Also many of the captains wanted to buy the merchandise outright and then sell it at inflated prices. All this reduced the market even before the Inerzen bureaucrats began adding transport licensing fees and taxes.

     So shipping plain old taters was not going to see much profit.

     From my previous posts you may have guessed the Zaonians were neither quitters nor stupid.They already arranged loans to get their own subsidized merchant ships. Then they had to find a market that for this fleet. The Zaonians began raising hemp.

     They weren't trying to get anyone high. They raised the hemp, then turned it into paper to make books. They began exporting paper and books to Inerze. The bureaucrats and a tiny wealthy fraction loved notebooks. It was a super secure place to put notes in (especially if you had a locking cover with a self destruct and a DNA reader). They saw how the Zaonians had profited with their knowledge of handwriting and it became a fad among them.

     The Zaonians also sold barrels of hemp slurry that could be converted to paper in Inerze. It also contained enough seeds and plant parts to make a paste you could get high on or bake into a brownie. The laborers working with it and doing clean up learned that. It came as a surprise to the bureaucrats but anything that kept the laborers mellow was a good thing. Pretty soon many locals began buying the slurry and turning out lovely brownies and other foodstuffs with it that the elite found delightful, legalized and taxed.

     The Zaonians briefly experimented with wood pulp based paper but raising trees took more water, land and time than hemp and the process was more polluting. Zaonian also never heard of Randolph Hearst. When they heard what the Inerzans were doing with their hemp slurry they did a facepalm over actually meeting people more resourceful than they were (the labor class at least). They then had a good laugh and increased the price of the slurry. The Inerzans paid without batting an eyelash.

     The elite had their secure notebooks. Subsidized merchants had a commodity they could hall. Everybody could have brownies fairly cheap. Everyone was as close to happy as spacers, politicians and grunt laborers could be.

     Then some character on Inerze set up a filter and got some viable seeds from the slurry and after a little experimenting began growing his own hemp. the increase in it ed to sluggish unproductive workers and more industrial accidents. Inerze's government decided they needed to get a handle on this and slapped an embargo on Zaonian imports. All imports. The Zaonians were left with a small merchant fleet with nothing to ship and loans to pay back and cargo containers full of hemp paper and slurry that Inerze had contracted for but was not buying. An economic crisis was looming and the Zaonians prepared for a war.

Next: Trade War!

From THE NICHE MARKET by Rob Garitta (2016)

     The planet Zaonia  (0104 C885655-5     Ag Ri         123) had managed to create a niche market on INERZE  (0202 B997A84-C 2    Hi In Cp    124). They succeeded in creating one for their paper products (notebooks!) and even a hemp slurry (make your own paper kits!) The hemp slurry was to make paper products cheaply on Inerze, however the laborers working with it discovered that it was food grade and it provided a cheap high. That and the slurry had hemp seeds in it.

     The hemp seeds were used to produce hemp plants locally. These were used to produce cigarettes (ironically rolled using stolen paper imported from Zaonia) and what at first became a new fad became a problem. The skimming of paper and slurry was of course theft and a loss of materials that were paid for and shipped. The stoned workers caused a fair share of accidents and loss of productivity.

     Imports of the slurry were stopped despite the Zaonians refining their process to filter the seeds from the slurry. The slurry still could be put to illicit use and there was still a problem with locals raising their own plants and using paper to make joints. So both markets were hurt and what was worse the Zaonians were left with a lot of hemp slurry and paper that Inerze had contracted to buy. The shipments were slated for a number of subsidized merchants as well as many lots for speculation. Furthermore passages to Zaonia were now discouraged because it was thought many Inerzans were merely buying hemp for smoking.

     This was an economic crisis in the making. An appeal to the Polity to make Inerze (the subsector capitol!) honor its contract could take years and the economic damage would be done. Finding or creating another niche market was going to take too long and potential customers would doubtless take advantage of the Zaonians' plight. Threatening the accounts of the ministers of Inerze could result in a truly massive invasion. Thousands of soldiers in battledress and combat armor would arrive. Inerze could field as many soldiers and ship them as there were Zaonians. So the Tech Knights were stuck with coercing a planet with 10,000 citizens to every one of theirs and a similarly massive armed force, fleet and economy.

     None of that was any good against a rumor. The rumor started that Zaonia was accepting psionic individuals for citizenship. Equal citizenship. Who started it? Who is to say? A rumor can't have it's mind read or be arrested and dosed with truth serum.

     Inerze had 10 billion people. Out of them perhaps one in a million was a member of a psi institute. That's ten thousand psis. Maybe 1% of them decided to check this out and go to Zaonia. They found the technology on Zaonia low and boring. Media meant sound or print. Flivvers instead of air/rafts. Medical care was rudimentary.

     But the media had its own charm. Reading was cool. So was writing. Driving a vehicle yourself was cool. As for medical, more advanced care was a week away and the local medicine was good enough to keep you alive that long.

     Most importantly it was quiet! The press of billions of minds on yours was gone! That was worth wearable media and high speed grav craft and cloned replacement parts even. Imagine living on a high gee world and suddenly moving to a small moon. You felt the release. they contacted the institutes back home and more psis came, a few hundred. The offer of citizenship was valid. Anyone could immigrate.

     There were a few provisos. To be fair everyone underwent these tests (since last week!)

     A lengthy interview involving polygraphs, truth serums in extreme cases, and many, many questions were required before the psi ... immigrant was deemed worthy to take the oath of loyalty to Zaonia. Interviews were often held one after the other as well as polygraph tests to run the batteries down of psis with Awareness who might otherwise spoof the tests and just make sure people were serious. Questionable psis were assigned at least two guards before deportation. Psis deemed trustworthy became guards and helped with the screening process.

     A new neighborhood was set up for the psionics inside the starport boundaries. Within the boundary there was no local law to apply. Basically short of murder, rape, or mass destruction anything was cool. The psionics were quite able to defend themselves. A pass was required to exit but then everyone else had to use them too. The rest of Zaonia remained a little wary but polite but it was open and there were no lynch mobs. They go off the port. Tech Knights insisted on this. Of course beyond the boundary using psionics in an unlawful manner could get you arrested or even deported. But the psionics minded their manners as far as anyone else could tell. The quiet was very persuasive.

     The people with secret bank accounts went a little insane. Their squirreled away funds, their hidden art collections, all that stuff had to be in an inventory somewhere and known to someone and now these mind snoopers were there to ferret them out. The situation was intolerable for Inerze and ther highly developed worlds that had to be listened to.

     The Zaonians explained since their niche markets had dried up they needed a new influx of citizens with offworld funds to avoid economic collapse. Well the depositors insisted, buy some psi shields! Sorry, no capital available since the economic crunch Inerze created. Besides there was this whole thing about importing offworld technology, remember? The Tech Knights specifically prohibited that sort of thing with a sort of reverse Prime Directive.

     The other worlds looked long and hard at Inerze and after some shouting behind closed channels Inerze paid for all the hemp goods it had contracted for. It then paid for a system of psi shields for the banks that could secretly be put into place. The Tech Knights and bankers all got free fedoras with hidden psi shields.

     Zaonia quickly began seeking new markets for their paper goods. Faceso was nearby and learned from Inerze's mistakes. Hemp was imported in new products. The seeds were filtered out. A vegetable extract was added as well to make it unpalatable (and unsmokeable).

     The Inerze market for hemp was replaced with timber. The Inerzans used wood grown on Zaonia to make paper under Zaonian supervision in traditional low tech style mills and studios. All cultivatable land on Inerze was used for living space or food production of course. Forests were long gone, possibly eaten. The new stationary sold well. The Inerzans who had grown to enjoy smoking their hemp still raised it quietly in their closets and basements and store rooms. It was no worse than most and better than a good many synthesized drugs that were already there, illegal and available, just cheaper. The Inerzan ministers looked at their neighbor world occasionally and gritted their teeth. The worst part was they couldn't even get a good hemp cigar or seed cake to mellow out anymore.

From WAR IN THE NICHE by Rob Garitta (2016)

     It was a happy time on Zaonia  (0104 C885655-5     Ag Ri         123). In fact the newspapers were calling this The Happy Times. Why not?
     Pretty good for an underpopulated and low tech backwater. The Tech Knights who ran the show sat back and had a cold one and some cigars.

     About a million klicks from Zaonia is her sister world: Nuon. During the Big Flame Out, when the Sunless Days began, interstellar trade disappeared, and the Zaonians were dying from numerous cascade failures as supplies and parts from offworld failed to arrive. The Tech Knights were formed to salvage whatever technology they could and stave off famine caused by offworld fertilizers not arriving and grav combines breaking down. The Tech Knights (more properly the Order of the Flaming Sword) succeeded in preserving a late industrial age of technology. they banned higher technology from use until they judged that the society and economy could build it localy and support it. No more cascade failures here. 

     There were some who said the Order of the Flaming Sword were despots (not true), who thought they were all wise (somewhat true), and wanted to get rich being the ones to introduce higher technology (bingo!). They stole/liberated the last shuttle on Zaonia and fled to Nuzon to keep their freedom. Very dramatic story. More likely it was a number of trips to drop off undesirables and prevent starvation on the mainworld and an overworked shuttle gave out on Nuzon. 

     Hundreds of years later the Nuzons were still there and had learned to survive on their little patch of hell. People do that. They were somewhat helped by a botanical research station that was creating adapted plants for colonists. 

     The Zaonians could see the settlements slowly growing through various telescopes and occasionally muttered threats at the sky. As commerce resumed slowly they had access to Nuzon through passing ships. those ships brought back some trinkets to Zaon: local plant products and crafts and an occasional Nuzoni who wanted to relocate, though the Zaonians said that would merely lower the average IQ of both planets. 

     One of the subsidized merchant captains was on an extended layover while his ship was having maintenance work done. After hitting the clubs, a smoke easy or two and other adult entertainment he trudged back to the starport diner for breakfast or dinner. He found a Nuzoni trying to palm off a bunch of flat sticks as a computer

     This captain had a merchant sixth sense. Rather than saying, "F**k off it takes electricity to do math! Any cadet knows that!" he grabs the sticks. The captain sees the little numbers that bunch together on one side and all the math sines and coefficient symbols and such and wave it under his navigator's nose. The starhound took the bunch of flat sticks and the Nuzoni aside and began fiddling with the gadget under the local's instructions. Then he checked some numbers on his wrist computer.

     "It's a computer captain. A computer that doesn't use metal or batteries for GHU's sake."

     "Hey ... we can take the gig (starship's boat capable of interplanetary travel) to Nuzon and buy a bunch of these if you think there's be a market," the captain said.

     "... I gave the little squib 50 credits for this. It's great. It works nearly as fast as a wrist computer and it works anywhere. The magnetic fields and zerfs in engineering always screw with our electronics after a while. This thing is immune and pretty good for fast calculations by the gear heads!"

     "Shoot let's go. Must be some kind of genetically engineered wood it's so smart."

     So they got in their gig and took a day off to hit Nuzon. They succeeded in buying a bunch of the 'slipsticks'. The locals explained the things were guaranteed not to warp or expand in adverse conditions and  were made of the finest native 'bamboo'.

     "Whuzzat?" the merchant captain asked.

     "Bamboo? Come, let me show you," the local merchant said smiling.

     That was the start of the biggest threat to Zaonia yet.

     To be continued ...

From BAMBOOZLED by Rob Garitta (2016)

No one can win them all. No person, no planet, no empire. that's fine. Only someone who does nothing makes mistakes. The same applies to Zaonia. The Tech Knights are fallible as any Zaonian citizen would tell you (strongly in many cases) as this should illustrate. I do not like setting up someone as a Mary Sue, or a gadget as a Katana or a planet of organization as the Good Guys who must win. Just because I created you doesn't mean you get a free (or even easy) pass. Read the Tesla stories if you need a clue how low I can stoop to make a story fun (for the reader).

Zaonia (0104 C885655-5     Ag Ri) shares a star with Nuzon (0104  E653555-4     Ag Ri). contact between the two planets was sporadic and often antagonistic. The Nuzoni fled Zaonia during the Time of Things Going to Hell. The Nuzoni maintained that they were exiled. The Zaonians insisted they did flee and that they stole the last working shuttle and broke it.

Now the Nuzoni made contact with one of Zaonia's subsidized merchants who was intrigued by wooden computing devices made locally. These slipsticks or ruled slides could be used in various areas of a ship where magnetic fields or radiation interfered with regular computers and were keen besides.

The devices were made of bamboo, a local plant.  The captain doubted he'd fill a hold with the little gadget or more importantly sell them all.  So he asked what else the bamboos were good for. The short answer was: Everything!

You could build with it, create fabrics, containers, medicines from extracts, fodder for some animals, decorations, even make —paper!

Word of this got back to the Tech Knights while they were slapping themselves on the back and pouring libations and figuratively speaking a group spit take occurred.

The Tech Knights called the bankers and explained that it was time to use their leverage of holding mortgages on ships to maintain their markets. Meanwhile they got hold of the lawyer and told them how badly they'd fuck him up if he didn't do something fast. Any Tech Knight can be called out into a gun duel over a political issue at any time. This was felt to assure only people with a commitment would take on the job. Their threats were not taken lightly.

The merchant captain knew law. He pointed out the contract spelling out his subsidized route mentioned the star system but not Zaonia specifically. The Tech Knights' lawyer went into hiding. They then looked nervously at Inerze, their major customer despite a recent bit of unpleasantness. Those contracts were coming up for renewal and the prospect of replacing Zaonian hemp with a plant that had even more uses was pretty enticing. That would be where the subsidized merchants would go to as well.

The fact the Inerzans would also be giving the uppity Zaonians the finger, hell the whole hand, was icing on the seed cake.

Bankers, Tech Knights and some merchant captains met behind closed doors while the citizens went about their day working, hitting smokeasies, and listening to the tubes. The secret council drew up several plans.

Invade Nuzonia: very bad. Planetary invasions were hard. They had only experience in repelling one and it would lead to a long occupation and a permanent enemy.

Carpet bomb the bamboo fields: illegal, immoral and did you see how fast  that stuff grows? Unless they hired a ship just for that it was unfeasible and probably cost more than it was worth. Also the Polity would probably notice at that point.

Coerce the merchants to stop shipping bamboo: unlikely. Keeping a merchant from profits was nearly impossible. The contracts were no help. The new lawyer said as much.

A solemn delegation went to Nuzon to discuss the matter. They received a friendly if guarded welcome. Then they had another meeting. the Nuzon emerged with a 'sweet deal'.

The banks of Zaonia were going to float a large and low interest free loan so that Nuzon could subsidized their own merchant ships. One way to keep a merchant from profits was to stick one in his place who made more money at it. In exchange for this Zaonia received a decent portion of the bamboo business.

The Zaonians could use the bamboo themselves or just let it rot or ship it far away. Reducing the amount of bamboo on the market would protect their timber and paper industries. It would also drive the price of bamboo up which thrilled the Nuzoni. The timber and paper industries still took a bit of a hit but other markets were opening for them. Zaonia would just tighten the belt for a while (meaning the ordinary citizens, the Tech Knights got to keep their imported flying cars and death ray laser pistols.)

Their former lawyer even turned up, on Nuzon where he began a new practice representing subsidized merchants. He told everyone of the dangers of messing with low tech planets and that truly terrible biological weapons wouldn't kill you, they'd leave you broke but alive.

From BAMBOOZLED PT. 2 by Rob Garitta (2016)

(W)hat are some reasons for this technophobia (or at least apathy)? Here's the background for Zaonia though these reasons could be extended to other worlds.

Zaonia once had a higher level of technology (early interstellar at least). After a catastrophe in my setting called the Flame Out jump drives had a bad habit of turning into a cloud of superheated plasma due to unknown jump space shenanigans. Worlds that previously were connected with trade were suddenly cut off. Space travel failed. Technology and industries supported by offworld parts and know how came crashing down.

In the case of Zaonia, a bucolic agricultural world, the offworld imports were fertilizers, GMO crops, farming tools. Farming is fairly technological even today. The Zaonians suddenly had to relearn basic farming at a early industrial level of technology or lower. Famine followed. Other technologies faltered as everything was put into growing food and ranching.

Zaonia today is governed by an oligarchy of technocrats: the descendant or successors of those who seized power during the disaster and got the farms and basic services working again. In the time since since space travel resumed these Tech Knights wielded great power but only so long as they maintained the services they were in charge of. 'Knight' meant you were granted rights and privileges and status but you still had constituents and they could vote to recall you. In the old days replacing a knight was a lot more bloody.

You'd think a technological oligarchy would welcome new technology. But the Tech Knights viewed offworld technology as dangerous. Technology requires support, infra-structure. If that support is in the form of a trade ship from another world then you are beholding to that ship and that world. If the ships stop coming you're screwed. If they keep coming they can own you body and soul.

So the oligarchy limits imports and aims at self sufficiency. The population has the old tales of the Great Famine to keep them scared of too much offworld influence. More to the point the Tech Knights base their rule on being masters of technology. Bringing in smart phones and robots they do not understand or control would erode that authority.

Regardless there are offworld influences. The only way to stop that is to blow up the starport and shoot down every ship that tries to land and jam any radio signals. Unfeasible. The Zaonians aren't even particularly violent.

Also the Tech Knights are not above making excuses to get some top gear for themselves. In some cases they could cite humanitarian interests. A person who gets cybernetic legs and returns home will not face amputation and a wheel chair. In many cases they cite the technology as depending on different kinds of unobtainium. They import sand munitions, for example, and tell the locals it's a sand gathered on the beaches of a far away world. The same goes for various drugs.

In the most wonderful case locals will salvage or replace some piece of local technology from before the Great Famine. This happened with a number of gravitic modules. Eventually they began building their own grav modules using vacuum tubes and crude transistors. It's amazing what you can copy if you only know it is possible. Their grav modules are more fragile. they are prone to overheating and in general an airplane is cheaper and faster. The gravitics powered aeros are important because they demonstrate just what the locals can do on their own.

The final exception to offworld technology is imminent need. Zaonia faced one invasion force equipped with battledress and laser weapons. They beat them back using weight of numbers, strategy and exploiting their own ignorance and over confidence. Some of those captured suits of battledress were hung in public as a warning. Some of the suits still functioned and those found a use. The same for the laser weapons (and a few gauss rifles). You can look the other way when the defense of your planet is at stake. You can also import more battledress and laser weapons since no one really keeps records of how many weapons and armor suits were captured. In fact the Knights used a number of exoskeletons from damaged battledress to build new suits replacing the destroyed armor using metal plates.

They are knights after all.

From TECHNOPHOBES by Rob Garitta (2016)

Transcript of Tech Knight Senior Dame Ranna Morrigan at Zao Plaza, Life Day Speech

"They call us backward because we drive cars and fly propellor planes. Our electronics are primitive because they use tubes and transistors. Our phones have wires and dials. Our media is sound only or black and white. One of those offworld fools laughed himself sick watching me ride a horse once into the starport."

"We have our merchant fleet made of ships built offworld. That is the answer to many planets, buy it from offworld. That is what the great corporations and banks want, to make consumers and workers of us all, their workers! That is not our way. We build it and we own it. It is time to send a message to these spacers, that we are every bit as good as they are! We are building a rocket!"

"Think about it ... mankind was no more advanced than we are now once ... centuries ago. they made that leap into space with far less knowledge than we have now. We know how it was done. We have Belters ready to sell us materials in bulk, not just steel and titanium but fissionables. We have basic lifter technology. We can get to orbit and beyond in a ship build solely on this planet! We are going to do this. It will be hard. It will be expensive. We won't see a profit from this ship. Our grandchildren will. We will spread to the stars again in our our ships built by our own hands and we will be no one's slaves!!"


There is something afoot in any Traveller setting that uses the the standard starport system. Either interstellar travel is way less common than actual play and most settings suggest, or something is happening with starship construction. There's a definite shortage of starports capable of producing starships. That shortage is even greater if you look at whether a world with shipyards also has a population and technology level that supports building a number of ships with many being marked for export. In fact I think on average 2-3 worlds per subsector will control the bulk of ship production despite other worlds having higher technology or population.

I think the reason boils down to control. Certain people (like the Company) want to restrict and control space travel and private enterprise or exploration of space. They deliberately restrict the number and quality of of shipyards in a subsector. They have a very simple way to do this. They sell starships.

Building a starship or even a shuttle is a complex enterprise. It's way easier buying one (if you don't mind paying 220% of its value in the long run). Build the ships, sell the ships and free up that industry to other things, like luxury items to keep people from wondering where the hell the post scarcity economy went. Worlds that are not habitable could put that industry to work terraforming or building bigger and better habitats. Balkanized worlds might have enemies close by that require defense plants.

In a few years universities won't even offer courses to become a naval architect. Those who want to become naval architects will have to travel off planet for education and discover most employment opportunities are at existing shipyards.

It's a delicate system. The ship builders do not want people realizing they too could work their way into space. Let alone that they have technology (like lifters) that will make such a leap easier than it was for the homeworld to take those first steps. It is a fragile lie and one planet or even a few exceptional people might shatter it and usher in holy Hell (from the powers that be perspective).

From COFFEE AND NOBILITY by Rob Garitta (2016)

Dame Ranna, one of the younger and more hellacious Tech Knights made a decision. She loved her homeworld, Zaonia. She'd already lost an eye in its defense. She knew the people were clever and tough and that soon none of that would matter. Zaonia was failing to progress technologically and surrounded by star drive capable worlds.

The longer Zaonia waited playing with internal combustion and vacuum tubes the less likely it would ever amount to anything in the face of more advanced and expanding worlds. There was a glimmer of hope. Old Earth had gone from Zaonia's level of technology to interplanetary flight in about a century and it didn't have more advanced neighbors to steal from emulate.

Earth however made a good deal of its progress due to two global wars. A costly but certain spur to progress. Ranna needed something similar. Then she started the buzz. The offworlders considered Zaonians backward, a stupid pastoral people. There was some truth. Most offworlders who knew Zaonians respected them. A few were a little scared of them. They had achieved lifter technology with their vacuum tubes, at least on a limited basis. It was easy to discount their opinions. They were friends and clients. But those other nameless and faceless offworlders ... they had an attitude according to Ranna.

Her half truth worked wonders. If someone insulted their customs or theology the Zaonians would haul off and give them a poke in the eye. But saying they could build things better, faster more powerful? They were up for that! They'd prove to them they weren't stupid the only way that mattered. They'd build their own spacecraft, even build a real jump ship! A race to space would replace war as a driving force for human advancement.

Call a man a heathen or slob and he'd argue with you. Tell him he can't do something and he'd kill himself to make a monkey out of you.

Ranna expected developing spacecraft to be a long drawn out affair. In fact developing them was unimportant to her and her vision. She expected technology from the research to trickle down and spur inventors and engineers on a planet wide scale. Unfortunately her plan hit a snag.

The Zaonians figured out a way to actually build a spaceship in the next few years. That was when the various parties interested in keeping starship construction their monopoly sat up did a spit-take and started making plans of their own.

The cutting the brake lines on Dame Ranna's roadster was the first sign of their disapproval.

To be continued ...

From THE IMMORAL EQUIVALENT OF WAR by Rob Garitta (2016)

     The most densely settled area of Zaonia was called the saddle, a fertile valley between two spurs of a mountain range. the frates River ran through the valley. The Tech Knights and ultra wealthy (the dozen or so) lived in villas on islands or on the riverbanks. The fertile banks of the river held farms. The foothills on either side of the river had hunting lodges and summer homes for the more important regular citizens. The Mayor had a hunting lodge at the foot of one hill, secluded and the scene of many a backroom deal.
     It was a bitch to reach by car, unless your car flew. Jorge Pierre Guttman's car flew. The beat up aero came down precisely in front of the cabin. Jorge jumped out to hold the door for his passenger who annoyedly waved him off and hooped out on her own. She was no fragile flower.
     "Well what do you think?" Jorge asked.
     Ranna regarded the cabin a moment and asked, "Were there any survivors?"
     Jorge bristled a little at that. He had found the cabin and persuaded the Mayor to buy and renovate it. "Sheesh, you're not here a minute and you already insult the place."
     "Did I break the record?"
     He showed his annoyance by holding the door for her. "Dame Morrigen," he snapped clicking his heels. She snorted.
     "I'm under censure. It's just Ranna."
     "Cowards," Jorge snorted.
     "Expedience. I can continue managing Project Venture as a private citizen and my fall from grace will make me less of a target." the door was unlocked and she slipped past him and into the lodge. Rain began to fall.
     There was a roaring blaze in the fireplace inside and two men with pistols. they both rose from their seats and motioned for Jorge to come inside with gun barrels.
     "Good day to you. Ms. Morrigen We'll make this brief," the smaller man said.
     "Good. Relax Jorge. No heroics. This meeting was expected," she cautioned.
     "Ms. Morrigen, you have a trade embargo begun by the bankers on Inerze. They've styled your planet as a backwater run by feudal drug lords. They've threatened every ship owner they hold a mortgage on and changed the subsidized merchant ship runs. You're sitting on hundreds of tons of hemp products, timber and some luxury items," he began.
     "Yes. I can speak exposition. Go on." she answered sitting down.
     "... Yes. Well I represent a number of people who can move your products for you," the man continued.
     "I see. You're smugglers?"
     "Think of us as entrepreneurs ... "

     Warships are not the only weapons in an interstellar war. Money, influence and politics can combine to make a thriving world a backwater or to destroy the promise of a new settlement if people are upsetting the status quo. Trade embargoes are one major weapon. Find a reason, or make one to place an embargo on a world and you can choke off trade if you're important enough. Your trade partners will follow your lead or face sanctions.

     For that matter trade can keep high tech items rare to retard local progress and keep worlds as backwaters that can only earn revenue by gathering natural resources or agriculture and remain a ready market for your manufactured goods (no tablets please!)

     Traveller among other games paints a picture of a number of worlds at different levels of technology. Some justifications were that Earth's progress in the last hundred years or so was not typical of human society and evolution and a fluke, that some societies do not seek technological progress or that conditions are so harsh survival slows progress.

     It's often been said that we now have sufficient technology to automate most jobs and usher in a non-working layabout utopia. It hasn't happened because the powers that be are not big on sharing. There's no reason to assume that will change anytime soon. Many businesses in history made a fortune trading to less technological people (remember Manhattan Island?) Assuming cheap interstellar travel (and shipping) the model could be extended to entire worlds.

     The homogeneous worlds empire is built for trade. A factory or office might have to junk its office computers and replace every few years if they are on a thriving progressive world. Rather than taking the loss or selling locally they could trade them to a lower tech world for full price.

     If an economic system is making someone money they will attempt to preserve that economic system. People who can't make money under that system will find work arounds or starve. Smugglers are usually regarded as criminals but they may be a lifeline to a world with embargoes.

From THE IMMORAL EQUIVALENT OF WAR PT.2 by Rob Garitta (2016)

Zaonia faced an embargo. For some worlds this would be an economic disaster and for other literally a slow death. Zaonia had water, breathable air and a biosphere that you could work with. What was more, during the Great Flame Out they had learned self sufficiency.

They still felt the bite. There was a shrunken market for thier goods. Subsidized merchants had their routes changed to exclude the world. Free Traders were strongly encouraged to look for bargains elsewhere or face the mother of all balloon payments on their ship mortgages.

Zaonia had a small merchant fleet, a shoestring operation. It had some grey area opportunists (smugglers) and it had other small local operations who owned their patched together little ships like Belters and tramp freighters.

Shoestring operations usually do not employ navigators. Instead they buy a jump tape. It isn't recorded on tape  but the name persists due to the tape you unwind to unpack the storage media that holds coordinates for a jump. It's usually cheaper than a navigators on ships that can't manage high jump numbers like Belters and tramp freighters. The tapes are sold any starport that is more than a cleared field and outhouse.

Zaonia used an offworld computer on their starport. The starport was legally a separate territory from the planet. The offworld computer failed soon. The embargo excluded sending repair parts to Zaonia's starport. The Zaonian's lawyered up and demanded the parts saying the starport was not part of their territory and hence excluded from any planetary embargoes and tariffs. the reply was the the embargo specified the planet Zaonia and not the government. As the starport was affixed to the lithosphere it was part of the embargo.

Accusations flew that the computer breakdown was the work of industrial sabotage. Possums weren't that destructive. A microwave couldn't explode with that much force. The spontaneous fires were kind of hard to explain as well. The answer was the same, take it to subsector court (where they would wait months) or sector court (wait years at the least).

Trade slowed still more for a week or so until jump tapes were made available. At discount. The tramp freighters and rock miners came back. The economy was definitely not booming but it was at least now breathing on its own. The embargo barons did a spit take and (after refilling their glasses) called an operative to go to Zaonia and see what in hell went on. The operative packed a few incendiaries, bombs and possums in low berth carriers for good measure and left.

He returned a month later. It took him a while to get to see the inner workings of the jump tape computers.

"ComputerS?" Banks wanted to know.

"Computers," the operative said reaching for a glass that was slid out of his reach. "They call these guys, can run numbers in their heads — computers, They got about 40 of them and they use these to calculate the jump coordinates." The operator held up a contraption that looked like  bunch of rulers held together with a clear plastic band.

The Director of Starports grabbed the slipping sticks and ponder them working them against each other slowly. "It has jump logarithma on it," he finally announced.

"They have all kinds of similar things. Also mechanical adding machines and hard copy books of logarithmic tables. They use them all to calculate jump tapes. There's a pool of secretarial labor to input the numbers on tape. —It's amazing," the operative said grudgingly. It was also hard to take out with a couple of easy to smuggle bombs or GMO  marsupials.

"Humans can't figure out jump navigation —you need computers!" Banks sputtered. Starports shook his head. "Humans can figure out jump coordinates. It takes a little longer is all."

"But ... the cost! The salaries!" Banks protested.

"Sir, do you have any idea how little mathematicians make in academia? Or aides? They were cranking out tapes when I got in and saw them," the operative said enjoying Banks discomfort.

"Okay, you go back with a bio weapon ... " Banks began. The operative  was about to protest he wasn't a mass murderer. One at a time was as far as he went. But Starports cut him off.

"Embargo on the starport is over. Now. Ship them a new computer on the next merchant. A good one!" he growled. He slid the glass back over to the operative who drained it gratefully.

"But why?"

"Do you know how much the Starport Authority makes selling jump tapes? Selling computers to compute jump tapes? If this gets out that a bunch of egg head number crunchers could do it for peanuts, we'll be ruined!"

From NUMBERS RUNNERS by Rob Garitta (2016)

     "Captain! Captain!" Sandoval yelled excitedly. She was waving a folder excitedly.
     "Yeah," the Captain, also the deck master and busy as hell, looked up from his bill of lading. A vape stick hung from his lip.
     "Do you see what the low techies did here?"
     "The locals! Their computer went down a week or so ago and they're doing navigation calculations by ... hand I guess or using their brains," Sandoval said.
     "That's ... impressive," the Captain allowed slowly. He pondered it a moment and asked, "How do they manage to do it in a timely fashion? They must have to come up with a couple a week at least."
     "They're amazing. They have these sort of rulers to figure jump logs. They use these projectors with mathematical designs called nomograms that represent the various jump factors and they got thousands of pages of logarithmic table they look stuff up with. It doesn't even use one computer or any power."
     "Hunh. That'd be a great back up if it didn't all take up several staterooms worth of space."
     "Well that's the good part sir. I figured out how we could use it," Sandoval puffed out her chest obviously proud of herself. The Captain braced himself for it. It wasn't his first rodeo.
     "I got it all on computer disc sir!

From NUMBERS RUNNERS REDUX by Rob Garitta (2016)

"Jorge, you know lifter technology, even our patched together version," it was a statement,

"I do," he replied working the ball of her right foot.

"How are you at ... naval architecture?"

"I was studying it before ... before I came here," he said cautiously.

"Mmm ... when did you find time to get this good at foot massage? Never mind! How far along were you in your studies?"

"I was in the middle of my final year. I was getting ready to begin my internship," Jorge said softly. Worse he stopped rubbing her feet, thinking furiously.

"You may be the closest thing we have to a starship designer."

"Then God help us all," Jorge snapped. Ranna's face fell and he continued. "Maybe you should have asked someone before you risked your reputation and life on a speech promising the masses a starship. We have lifter technology. That has limits: beyond ten diameters or so it becomes nothing."

"We could get to orbit!"

"Yes but getting to orbit and achieving orbit are two different things. You'll get up there but you won't be moving at orbital velocity. When your power cuts off you'd start to fall. Any ships moving in orbit couldn't dock with you. Any bits of debris (and believe me there is debris in orbit) could hit you like teeny bits of high explosive."

"We could build a maneuver drive. those use components similar to lifters!"

"Their similar yes but refinements, that require special materials and production techniques we just don't have here. Making a drive that uses a planet or moon in place of reaction mass is one thing. Making a drive that fuses fuel, uses it to generate a plasma rocket and then dumps the heat and exhaust into jump space on a massive scale is another. Your lifters can't even manage the lateral thrust conventional gravcraft do. You need secondary propulsion systems. Then there's the fusion reactors. Your technology is nowhere near building a fusion generator to power a jump drive or rocket ..."

Ranna drew her feet back and scrambled to her knees on the couch leaning in close. She hissed angrily, "Stop telling me what we can't build and work on what we can! No one built gravitics using vacuum tubes and resistors before we did! No one turned back an invasion force equipped to modern standards before we did! You're a fucking genius. You built that flyvver outside out of junk! It flies circles around the ones the Tech Knights have ... oh yes we ... they kept an eye on you Jorge. Now put your mind to this. The mark of true genius is to see the simple solution everyone else overlooks."

"I'll try ... okay I'll put my mind to it. But only because you ask me so nicely," he said. The fire in her eyes ... eye subsided somewhat. She inched closer to him on the sofa. He had to admit he felt like a mouse confronted by a mousetrap. How to get what you want without getting your neck broken? Well so far so good.


"That planet. That Goddam planet! Bunch of fracking lunatics. Barbarians ..." the banker sputtered.

"Yes sir. The reports so far show they've salvaged a derelict ship out in the desert. Some belters had tagged it for salvage but decided it wasn't worth the effort. The jump drive was trash. The maneuver drive likewise, and the fusion plant couldn't possibly sustain a reaction. That's all standardized technology we make available to customers buying ships. But they claim to be developing their own technology that can be reproduced locally. Now we have several reports of belters selling fissionable materials to them."

"Neutrons screw with lifter tech, maneuver drives, jump drives ... oh it will kill a crew too," the starport administrator said. "No one screws with fission anymore"

"Apparently they are. With fusion generators, fissionables become so much toxic garbage ... but they don't have fusion reactors."

"Why the hell couldn't they just buy our reactors!?" the shipyard tycoon asked.

"Balance of trade, high mortgage rates, dependence on off world technology and technicians ... " the analyst began.

"You want to see the morning or not?" the banker growled.

"So ... that's were we are with Zaonia," the analyst summed up.

"This is bad. Very bad," the banker muttered.

"I still think you're over reacting. A nut case shut down the starport for a few days. Required new fuel and tanks flushed ... stuck your branch for  a few million in spares for a bunch of D rated bots ..." the tycoon chuckled a bit at that.

"Over reacting? Those ship captains have big mouths. We're getting investors bailing on projects ... we may be looking at a subsector or sector wide bank run in a couple of months. W're getting runs on some of our banks already. Tell them the rest, Numbers!" the banker jabbed a vape stick at the analyst.

The analyst continued, "I have made a number of inquiries. Gentle beings it is important to remember two things. First, you are publicly owned corporations for for all that you own a majority of your stocks you do not own all of it. Second, humans in a group are a panicky thing. We are seeing people selling your stocks, even seeing them sell short. there is unrest among your larger investors. You may be looking at a stock market crash in the near future."

"It's one frigging planet!"

"That's all it takes. All it has taken in history. Runs have started based on rumors," the analyst said closing up the displays.

"Okay ... I guess we show them what happens when you don't play by the rules," the tycoon said. She spared the analyst a dirty look for the bad news.

"I'm out," the starport administrator said. He got up suddenly. "You do whatever it is you want. Make sure you leave my ports open and undamaged or ... I will show you what happens when you don't play by the rules. I'm always going to have ships that need fuel and services. I can whether a crash. I can't deal with a scandal and having a few holes shot in my golden parachute. For what it's worth ... I wish you luck."

The banker broke into a cold sweat as the administrator left. He looked over at the tycoon and said, "Call Major Leogan."

"Call him your own damned self!"

"You're out too?"

"No. I'm just not your damn secretary!"

"Oh fair enough. Listen. I have another meeting to attend to. So I'll just have time to make that call if you ..."

"I'm going." She went.

The banker swore softly to himself. Zaonia was going to see what happened when they didn't play by the rules. He promised that. A light blinked on his desk and he hit it and slid it left to the affirmative. He stood up as the door opened outwardly composed as his guest entered. He came around the desk to greet him in the process noting the analyst, Numbers, still idling. He gave the robot a swift kick to get it moving and jerked a thumb at the door. Number complied. No one saw it pause a moment to regard the guest. It was a robot. You didn't notice what robots did.

The banker bowed formally to his guest and the tall Inerzan returned it, his green eyes dull and haunted.

"Captain Xibalboa, I have a job for you."

From THROWING OUT THE RULES by Rob Garitta (2016)

Trade Restrictions

Trade is such a source of power and control that quite a few groups want to restrict trade for fun and profit.

Trader Spacecraft Monopoly

If you are an undeveloped colony or base and own no trader spacecraft, you are at the mercy of the off-planet traders. If the various trade ships collude in their pricing; you either pay it, hope for a trader willing to undercut the colluders, or do without. And if a trader has a monopoly on your planet, you are shafted. About the only thing that can be done is for the colony to build or otherwise obtain their very own trade ship (or make a plea to an off-planet government, good luck with that).

In some science fictional universes, a powerful group manages to obtain a monopoly on all spacecraft and starships. This is called a Thalassocracy. A good example is the Spacing Guild in the DUNE novels.


     "Where are you going to sell that stuff?" he asked, pointing at a passing skid. "There's enough combat equipment around now to outfit a private army for every man, woman and child in Poictesme."
     "Storisende Spaceport. The freighter captains buy it, and sell it on some of the planets that were colonized right before the War and haven't gotten industrialized yet. I'm clearing about two hundred sols a ton on it."
     The skid at which he had pointed was loaded with cases of M504 submachine guns. Even used, one was worth fifty sols. Allowing for packing weight, his father was selling those tommy guns for less than a good cafe on Terra got for one drink of Poictesme brandy...

(ed note: the point is as long as Poictesme has no starships, the freighter captains can give the planet a pittance for the cargo and the planet has no other option. The only way out of the trap is for Poictesme to build its own cargo starships and eliminate the middleman.)

     ...And drink up, everybody. We have plenty of brandy, if we don't have anything else."
     "You can say that again, Kurt." That was one of the distillery people; he'd remember the name in a moment. "When this new crop gets pressed and fermented..."
     "I don't know where in Gehenna I'm going to vat mine till it ferments," Klem Zareff said.
     "Or why," another planter added. "Lorenzo, what are you going to be paying for wine?"
     Lorenzo Menardes; that was the name. The distiller said he was worrying about what he'd be able to get for brandy...
     ...But I was serious about the ship. An idea hit me. You gave it to me; you and Klein Zareff."
     "Why, I didn't say a word."
     "Down on the shipping floor, before we went up. You were talking about selling arms and ammunition at a profit of two hundred sols a ton, and Klein was talking as though a bumper crop was worse than a Green Death epidemic. If we had a hypership, look what we could do. How much do you think a settler on Hoth or Malebolge or Irminsul would pay for a good rifle and a thousand rounds? How much would he pay for his life?—that's what it would come to. And do you know what a fifteen-cc liqueur glass of Poictesme, brandy sells for on Terra? One sol; Federation money. I'll admit it costs like Nifflheim to run a hypership, but look at the difference between what these tramp freighter captains pay at Storisende and what they get."
     "I've been looking at it for a long time. Maybe if we had a few ships of our own, these planters would be breaking new ground instead of cutting their plantings, and maybe we'd get some money on this planet that was worth something...

(ed note: the obstacles to a planet making their own starship are [1] requires an industrial base to build and maintain a starship, [2] requires lots of money to pay for buillding a starship [3] requires lots of money to run and maintain a starship. But once you get over the hump they can be very lucrative.)

     ...At the same time, reports of the near completion of Ouroboros II were monopolizing the newscasts, to distract public attention from what wag happening at Force Command. Cargo was being collected for her; instead of washing their feet in brandy, next year people would be drinking water. Lorenzo Menardes had emptied his warehouses of everything over a year old; so had most of the other distillers up and down the Gordon Valley. Melon and tobacco planters were talking about breaking new ground and increasing their cultivated acreage for the next year. Agricultural machinery was in demand and bringing high prices. So were stills, and tobacco-factory machinery. It began to look as though the Maxwell Plan was really getting started...

From JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1963)


Predictably, as soon as a merchant tries to move his imported goods out of the spaceport, the tax and tariff officer shows up. As Terry Pratchett said, there exists Death and Taxes, and taxes is worse since at least death doesn't happen every time you try to cross the customs border.

If some trade goods landing at the spaceport are destined for another port, they are unloaded into a spaceport bonded warehouse, and later loaded into another merchant spacecraft. The point is the goods are just passing through, so the local customs agents can do nothing. However, if the spaceport is at the market for the trade goods, the port will probably be inside a sovereign nation, and the sovereign nation wants their taxes. The nation will have its customs and immigration agents controlling the flow of goods and people into and out of the spaceport, enforcing the nation's customs and immigration laws. The magic line is called the customs border. Goods land at the spaceport inside the customs border. The instant the goods are shipped across the border they have to be cleared by the customs agents, and the relevant duties, tariffs, and taxes paid. And some goods are contraband, which are restricted or prohibited from crossing the customs border. Depending upon the law, contraband items are refused entry or confiscated.

If the nation's list of contraband includes lucrative items, or if the tariffs are too high, there will be a strong fence around the customs border patrolled by customs agents on the lookout for smugglers.

The spaceport area inside the customs border is usually a free trade zone. In this zone, goods may be landed, handled, manufactured or reconfigured, and reexported without the intervention of the customs authorities. The agents cannot interfere at all with goods that are transshipped through the port. Trade goods inside the free trade zone are stored in bonded warehouses.

If however the customs border is drawn around the entire planet at orbital height, or even around an entire solar system or interstellar empire, then the job belongs to the space-based branch of the customs agency.

Military Blockade

Sometimes the entity controlling the flow of trade is a hostile fleet from an invading foreign power. If they cannot conquer the planet (or are unwilling to pay the military cost) they will invest the planet and try to starve it out.

The enemy fleet is constantly on the lookout for blockade runners trying to sneak stuff in.

Things get really messy if there are several colonies on the planet that belong to different star nations, so the investing fleet is only trying to stop trade to Colony X, but allowing it to Colony Y and Colony Z.


Another issue touched upon above that deserves more discussion is the concept of a blockade.  There are several different concepts of a blockade, ranging from a total blockade intended to prevent the victim from leaving his planet, to a ‘pacific blockade’ intended to merely apply diplomatic pressure.  While some of these concepts belong in other sections, they will all be discussed here for the sake of clarity.  

A total blockade is the most extreme, and most difficult, form of blockade.  The objective is to stop all travel to and from a planet.  What separates it (or any other blockade) from a simple attack is that the blockader does not venture into low orbit to engage any fixed defenses, and leaves the orbital infrastructure more or less intact.  However, all ships attempting to transit the blockade are turned away or destroyed.  This is fairly simple to implement, provided the attacker has sufficient firepower to do so.  However, it is definitely an act of war, and risks aggravating neutral parties in the conflict.  It also violates current international law, which only allows passing ships to be stopped and searched for contraband.

This form of blockade is also relatively easy to implement.  As discussed in the section on boarding, ships approaching the blockade would be instructed to rendezvous with the blockading ships and be boarded.  It has been suggested that a “blockade missile” would be sent to rendezvous with the approaching ship and attach until it reaches the blockade.  The problem with this idea is that the delta-V requirements for rendezvous are significant, and that a missile fired at a noncompliant vessel would be just as effective.  The general feasibility of boarding is significantly improved by the long acceleration times characteristic of nuclear-electric vessels.  Even with miligee drives, reaching escape velocity will take tens if not hundreds of hours.

Avoiding such a blockade is not totally impossible, however.  A blockade runner could use chemfuel to put on delta-V much faster than possible pursuers, or take suboptimal launch windows to avoid blockading craft.  Both of these approaches work best for a blockade runner coming from the blockaded planet, as a blockade runner coming from another planet will give the blockader time to set up an intercept with minimal delta-V expenditure.  This leads to the concept of a Launch Window Blockade, which simply increases the cost to get to (or more likely from) a planet without annoying the inhabitants too much.

Even if such tactics are commonplace, they do not mean that the blockade was a failure.  The Union blockade of the South during the American Civil War only intercepted about 1 in 10 blockade runners.  However, the commerce that did move was forced from conventional, efficient merchant ships into far less efficient blockade runners, driving up shipping costs and restricting supply.  Much the same would occur in space if blockade runners were forced to use inefficient orbits to avoid the blockading forces.

An even softer blockade would be a ‘pacific blockade’.  This concept originated in the late 19th century as a means of diplomatic pressure by the great powers short of going to war.  The concept is best described by the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

PACIFIC BLOCKADE, a term invented by Hautefeuille, the French writer on International Maritime Law, to describe a blockade exercised by a great power for the purpose of bringing pressure to bear on a weaker state without actual war. That it is an act of violence, and therefore in the nature of war, is undeniable, seeing that it can only be employed as a measure of coercion by maritime powers able to bring into action such vastly superior forces to those the resisting state can dispose of that resistance is out of the question. In this respect it is an act of war, and any attempt to exercise it against a power strong enough to resist would be a commencement of hostilities, and at once bring into play the rights and duties affecting neutrals. On the other hand, the object and justification of a pacific blockade being to avoid war, that is general hostilities and disturbance of international traffic with the state against which the operation is carried on, rights of war cannot consistently be exercised against ships belonging to other states than those concerned. And yet, if neutrals were not to be affected by it, the coercive effect of such a blockade might be completely lost. Recent practice has been to limit interference with them to the extent barely necessary to carry out the purpose of the blockading powers.

The exact same can be said of a pacific blockade in space.  It will only be implemented in cases where the blockading power is so much stronger than the blockaded power that it does not have to actually defeat the planet’s defenses.  Another point is that the stated goals of the blockade will often be different from the actual goals.  One example might be a blockade to prevent a terrorist leader from leaving the planet.  While it might achieve its goal directly, it can be effective even if the terrorist has no desire to travel.  The blockaded planet will have every incentive to hand the leader in question over to stop the inconvenience of the blockade.

Another potential case for a pacific blockade is a planet without a functioning government, effectively the equivalent of Somalia in space.  This is perhaps the most likely scenario, given the logistics of power projection in space, although the idea of a planet without a functioning government and large amounts of interplanetary trade is somewhat questionable.

The target of the blockade also has a major effect on how it is conducted.  Targets can be divided between statistical and non-statistical goods.  Most modern blockades target statistical goods such as military equipment or oil, where the objective is to restrict the flow of the good to or from the target planet.  Success or failure is measured based upon the relative amount that gets through, not on the absolute blocking of all trade.  In this case, the idea of a decoy blockade runner is rather silly, as it would make more sense to split the cargo up among each ship instead.

A non-statistical good is one where preventing the good from penetrating at all is critical.  A good example might be a terrorist leader, who cannot be divided between multiple ships, and must be captured if the blockade is to be considered a success.  Another example might be a nuclear weapon, which requires the entire lot to get through to be effective, with the converse that there is no gain to be had by spreading the parts out across multiple blockade runners.  (This assumes that only one weapon is available.  If there are multiple identical weapons, then splitting them up might allow one working one to be assembled from the parts of several.)  The only reason that such a cargo should be split up is to aid concealment if it is to be smuggled.  In the case of non-statistical goods, decoys do make sense, reducing the chances of the good in question being captured.  

In many cases, the blockade can be targeted on traffic in one direction or the other, and even on traffic to or from specific locations.  The unlimited visibility of space and the constraints of orbital mechanics make it fairly easy to predict the destination of any departing craft.  This would be useful if, for example, customs at the far end could be counted upon to search the craft in question, or if there are reasons to believe that the target is headed for (or from) a specific body.  

Political and legal constraints can also have a serious impact on a blockade.  One example of this is the searching of Iraqi oil tankers during the pre-2003 sanctions.  The forces detailed to do so were required to board the tankers in international waters and physically take control of them.  The Iraqis responded by welding up the tankers, and the boardings forces were not allowed to use explosives to breach the defenses, turning it into a race between the boarders cutting their way in and the Iraqis racing for someone’s territorial waters.  A similar situation in space could require each target to be chased down and boarded individually, with the blockaders unable to inflict more damage than is required to cut their way in.  The discussion on opposed boarding above is obviously relevant in this scenario.

Even an inability to simply destroy a noncompliant vessel would be a major influence on the conduct of a blockade.  A disabled blockade runner headed towards a planet would be difficult to intercept and bring to a stable orbit, and maintaining such a capability would take significant resources.  

There are several other types of operation that, while referred to as ‘blockades’ do not meet the strict definition used here.  One is the Argus Blockade mentioned in Section 9.  Another is the idea of destroying the orbital infrastructure and preventing the blockaded planet from going into space at all.  The reasons that this would be done are unclear, as it would rapidly become more expensive than a full-out invasion, and it only makes sense if done over the long term.  Destroying ground-based infrastructure and occasionally sending a fleet by to make sure it stays destroyed would probably be cheaper.  The only plausible scenario that would require this is if the planet in question had to be quarantined for some reason.

A somewhat softer version of this is the Kessler Blockade.  This uses the orbital debris problems mentioned above to complicate the defender’s rebuilding of their infrastructure after it is destroyed.  While the effects would not be total, any new missions would have to be heavily protected from debris, and certain orbits (notably those previously most popular) might be uninhabitable altogether.  Depending on the setting, clearing of the debris could take months or years, particularly if most debris was previously cleared by orbital platforms instead of ground-based ones.  

by Byron Coffey (2019)

At this point, it is worth looking at the classic ‘revolt of the colonies’ scenario in some detail, along with the intimately related question of claims of sovereignty in space.  What would it take for such a revolt to succeed, and what would constitute success?  The standard model, most famously described in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, is based on the American Revolution, and is probably the one with the most interesting story potential.  In this, a major colony decides that it is fed up with misgovernment from Earth, and wants to go it alone.  The government that previously had jurisdiction over the colony is unlikely to be happy with this, and will probably send an expedition to put down the revolt.  There are serious problems with this scenario, however.  In nearly every revolt against a ‘colonial’ power, a significant fraction of the population supported the occupying power, and the premium that operations in space will put on group unity suggests that a full-scale revolt will be somewhat unlikely unless the occupier is totally unreasonable.  

Essentially, all revolts or attempts at independence succeed only when the cost of suppressing them exceeds the benefits to be gained.  In fact, the same could be said of any attempt to exert sovereignty on a celestial body, but in many cases, the balance is so skewed that the outcome is inevitable.  These will be examined later.

There are many factors that can influence the cost-benefit ratio of suppressing a revolt, most of which are tied into setting politics and economics, and will not be examined in detail here.  Instead, the focus will be on the effects of the factors directly related to space warfare.  Ultimately, any revolt can be suppressed in one of two ways.  Either it can be made too expensive for the revolt to be sustained, or it can be put down by occupying the colony directly.  In many ways, the first is more likely.  Unless some fantastically valuable resource is discovered on a body, any colony is likely to be more dependent on Earth than Earth is on it.  In this case, a simple blockade would be the most effective way to suppress the revolt, and a successful revolt would require that the blockade be made ineffective or impossible.  

The feasibility of a blockade can vary widely depending on scenario details.  The simplest case for a blockade is one in which all colonies on the body are in revolt, and an embargo can thus be slapped on everything headed in that direction.  As most ships capable of interplanetary flight probably belong to the power or powers that are attempting to suppress the revolt, only minimal military force is necessary, and what force is necessary can probably be exerted at the points of departure, without ever having to get close to the body and run the risks of any orbital defenses that may have been assembled.  However, this is also rather unlikely on anything but an asteroid, where there is a possibility of having only a single colony that is developed enough to be able to potentially become self-sufficient.  On a moon or a planet, there will likely be multiple colonies from multiple nations, and the chances of a simultaneous rebellion are slim.  

If there are colonies that are not in revolt, then the situation is obviously more complicated.  An embargo against all colonies on the body is clearly going to anger many people, both on Earth and on the body.  However, allowing trade to the body raises the risk that some of that trade will find its way to the colony, either via ships filing falsified destination plans, or via transport from the destination colony to the revolting colony.  Stopping such trade would require a much closer blockade (See Section 11), and that in turn potentially exposes the attackers to any defenses the revolt may have constructed.  The defender would probably have to prevent the attacker from reaching the body’s orbit at all, as there is no particular reason a blockade would need to be conducted within range of any point defenses.  The matter is more fully covered above, but the scenario generally does not end well for an unsupported revolt.  In a scenario with minimal space warfare preparation, where both sides are working from scratch, a defender might be capable of defeating the initial attack.  However, the Earth-based power would have a significant edge in terms of technological development, and any follow-up expedition would probably brush aside the defenses.  This applies to even the first expedition if the government has made significant preparations for space warfare.

by Byron Coffey (2016)

An expeditionary force, let us say, has set forth from Mars, heading toward Earth. Its mission is to establish and enforce a blockade of Earth — or of the rest of the Solar System, depending on how you look at it. Specifically, certain persons are to be embargoed, forbidden to travel from Earth. to any other planet, moon, or other astronomical body. Travel to good old Luna may or may not be included in the embargo, depending as much on operational as policy-objective considerations. (See below!)

Violators are subject to arrest. If they resist arrest they may be fired upon.

We will not, for this discussion, trouble ourselves with who 'certain persons' are, or why someone on Mars wants to keep them from leaving Earth. For our purpose, it is sufficient that

a) The relevant Earthside authorities have zero interest, or less than zero, in helping Mars bottle these certain persons up. A polite request would reach Earth a lot faster, easier, and cheaper than an expeditionary force. But a polite request, by itself, would be ignored.

b) Somebody on Mars (or at least in Mars space) has means and motive to issue more than a polite request. Namely send the expeditionary force.

c) Whoever this somebody is, their objective is to control outbound traffic from Earth, not eliminate it — especially not permanently. Slagging Earth, its launch sites, or orbital infrastructure are not objectives, or even acceptable outcomes. Slagging individual transport-class ships is dicey, depending on the circumstances. Military craft, however, are fair game.

Human interplanetary travel uses electric propulsion, on the general lines often discussed here. Main drive acceleration is in the milligee range, and the ships have either very large radiator fins or very large solar wings. Hardening these is a nonstarter, so deep-space ships are inherently vulnerable.

On the other hand, punching a few small holes in the wings will not cripple them, so the vulnerability should not be overstated. Spaceships won't sink, or become aerodynamically unflyable.

Delta v will be a constant preoccupation of commanders. This has been discussed here before, but it is almost impossible to overstate. The Martian expeditionary force probably take a slower orbit than civil transports, because transports can refuel at their destination. The expeditionary needs to reserve propellant for a (slow!) abort orbit back to Mars.

And while milligee drives preclude 'tactical' maneuver, at least some of your deep space ships likely have a few km/s of delta v for 'operational' orbit changes in Earth space. At a rate of about 1 km/s per day. By bringing along plenty of tankers for support, a few ships might have a couple of dozen km/s for operational movement.

Chemfuel spacecraft can have pretty much as much acceleration as you want, but unless they start out as mostly propellant drop tanks they will carry only 2-3 km/s of delta v. Which means that a 1 km/s burn is huge, a sizable chunk of your entire maneuver capacity.

Nuclear thermal propulsion is intermediate, but much closer to chemfuel. And for human missions much of the advantage may be lost due to shielding mass.

Just on a practical level, all of these constraints are a good reason to seek mutual understanding through dialogue. But of course you won't.

On the flip side, the technology of deep space travel makes 'distant blockade' a surprisingly viable concept. Departing ships spiral out for a week or more, their orbital speed (relative to Earth) gradually decreasing to a couple of km/s, before they finally pass escape velocity and break loose into solar orbit.

This gives ample time for ships in high Earth orbit to intercept would-be blockade runners, the interception taking place somewhere between geosynch and lunar distance. This sort of space chase is more than a bit odd to contemplate. Both prey and pursuer are circling Earth throughout the chase, which unfolds over a period of days due to their extremely sluggish acceleration.

But the scope for evasive maneuvers is extremely limited, since the blockade runner must keep spiraling outward if it is to proceed on its journey. One possible tactic is to feign a departure, either to draw the blockader into battle with a heavily armed ship, or as sheer bluff — forcing the blockader to expend its limited propellant, then 'reverse course' and spiral back inward toward low orbit. The ship performing the bluff has also expended propellant, but it can refuel at LEO, an option not available to the blockaders.

Such peculiar chases are complicated by the possibility of chemfuel (or nuke thermal) ships — or munitions — making far more abrupt orbit changes, leading to an engagement in a matter of days.

Earth-Moon travel is, or can be, entirely different, carried out using chemfuel or nuke thermal propulsion, blasting straight out of LEO into the lunar injection orbit. The challenge of intercepting Moon-bound ships is equally different, to the point that the blockader will either have to make separate provision for it (a ship positioned at the lunar L1 point, or in lunar orbit), or else not attempt to enforce the blockade with respect to Luna.

If blockade runners were pre-parked in lunar orbit — and the Earth-based defender had months to position them, while the blockader was en route from Mars — then the blockader must extend enforcement to lunar space. Otherwise the blockade might be evaded simply by going to lunar orbit first.

So far I have said nothing about weapons. The scenario as described does make one negative presumption: that lasers (or whatever beam weapons) have an effective range less than about 50-100,000 km — whatever turns out to the the distance from Earth at which departing electric ships reach escape velocity and transition from geocentric spirals to their solar transfer orbits.

Otherwise the prime intercept zone lies within direct zapping range of lasers in low orbit — or even on the ground. In that case the expeditionary force must either engage in a direct laser battle, or blockade from a higher orbit, outside the range of 'shore guns.' Intercepting blockade runners then becomes more difficult and propellant-costly, since they are already above Earth escape velocity on outbound solar orbits.

Kinetics, or missiles generally, have no 'range.' If they are on orbits below escape velocity they will orbit Earth (or Luna) indefinitely; if above escape velocity they will head out into the void on solar orbits. More relevant for missiles is flight time, which defines the target's window for engaging the missile or evading it.

Electric ships can, potentially, outrun any chemfuel or even nuke thermal missiles by running them out of delta v. But with milligee acceleration they can only do so if the flight time is in days. The drawn-out evasive maneuver will cut fairly deeply into reserve delta v, and leave the target far from its previous orbit, therefore probably off station.

I have also said nothing about the ships involved, save that they have the broad characteristics determined by their propulsion. It is by no means a given that either side has craft that fit our image of warships, especially if lasers or other beams are not an important factor. The expeditionary force must come closer, since its deep space craft must be able to deploy weapons in some way. But the Earth-based defender might well rely entirely on missile buses pre-positioned in patrol orbits, with its ships providing purely logistic support.

Finally, bear in mind that the scenario outlined — distant blockade — is pretty much the most favorable for an expeditionary space force. The blockader is not seeking to land anywhere in force, or even contest control of Earth's inner orbital space, only interdict outbound deep space traffic. It need not come close enough to Earth to be at risk of short-warning attack by surface-launched ASATs or surface-based lasers.

From SPACE WARFARE XVII: A BLOCKADE IN SPAAACE !!! by Rick Robinson (2012)

Trade and Planetary Economy

Trade improves pretty much all economies, so a planetary colony will find their economy enhanced by interplanetary and/or interstellar trade spacecraft.

My question is what happens to such a colony who relies upon off-world trading if the trade is cut off? Is this a minor inconvenience or does it cause a major recession that crashes the entire planetary economy? Such interruptions can happen due to trade embargoes, blocades by hostile starfleets, or by the decline and fall of the galactic empire.

That question is above my pay grade, but I suspect that either outcome is plausible enough for an author to utilize it in their novel.


(ed note: the Colonial Union, a group composed of Terra and all her colonies, has managed to cheese off the Conclave, a consortium of alien civilizations around it. Some of the Conclave aliens attack with warships, other attack by other means…)

The Kristina Marie had just docked at Khartoum Station when its engine compartment shattered, vaporizing the back quarter of the trading ship and driving the front three-quarters of the ship directly into Khartoum Station. The station's hull buckled and snapped; air and personnel burst from the fracture lines. Across the impact zone airtight bulkheads sprang into place, only to be torn from their moorings and sockets by the encroaching inertial mass of the Kristina Marie, itself bleeding atmosphere and crew from the collision. When the ship came to rest, the explosion and collision had crippled Khartoum Station, and killed 566 people on the station and all but six members of the Kristina Marie’s crew, two of whom died shortly thereafter of their injuries.

The explosion of the Kristina Marie did more than destroy the ship and much of Khartoum Station; it coincided with the harvest of Khartoum’s hogfruit, a native delicacy that was one of Khartoum’s major exports. Hogfruit spoiled quickly after ripening (it got its name from the fact Khartoum’s settlers fed the overripe fruit to their pigs, who were the only ones who would eat them at that point), so Khartoum had invested heavily to be able to harvest and ship for export its hogfruit crop within days of ripening, via Khartoum Station. The Kristina Marie was only one of a hundred Colonial Union trade ships above Khartoum, awaiting its share of the fruit.

With Khartoum Station down, the streamlined distribution system for the hogfruit ground into disarray. Ships dispatched shuttles to Khartoum itself to try to pack in as many crates of the fruit as possible, but this led to confusion on the ground in terms of which hogfruit producers had priority in shipping their product, and which trade ships had priority in receiving them. Fruit had to be unpacked from storage containers and repacked into shuttles; there were not nearly enough cargo men for the job. The vast majority of hogfruit rotted in its containers, delivering a major shock to the Khartotun economy, which would be compounded in the long term by the need to rebuild Khartoum Station—the economic lifeline for other exports as well—and bolster the defenses of Khartoum from further attack.

Before the Kristina Marie docked at Khartoum Station, it transmitted its identification, cargo manifest and recent itinerary as part of the standard security “handshake.” The records showed that two stops previous, the Kristina Marie had traded at Quii, the homeworld of the Qui, one of the Colonial Union’s few allies. It had docked next to a ship of Ylan registry, the Ylan being members of the Conclave. Forensic analysis of the explosion left no doubt that it was intentionally triggered and not an accidental breach of the engine core. From Phoenix came the order that no trade ship that had visited a nonhuman world in the last year was to approach a space station without a thorough scan and inspection. Hundreds of trade ships floated in space, their cargo unpacked and crews quarantined in the original Venetian sense of the word, awaiting the eradication of a different sort of plague.

The Kristina Marie had been sabotaged and sent on its way, to the place where its destruction could have the most impact, not just in deaths but in paralyzing the economy of the Colonial Union. It worked brilliantly.

From THE LAST COLONY by John Scalzi (2007)

     As a functioning unit in the Confederation scheme, (the planet) Beltane had been in existence about a century at the outbreak of the Four Sectors War. That war lasted ten planet years.
     Lugard said it was the beginning of the end for our kind and their rulership of the space lanes. There can rise empires of stars, and confederations, and other governments. But there comes a time when such grow too large or too old, or are rent from within. Then they collapse as will a balloon leaf when you prick it with a thorn, and all that remains is a withered wisp of stuff. Yet those on Beltane welcomed the news of the end of the war with a hope of new beginning, of return to that golden age of “before the war” on which the newest generation had been raised with legendary tales. Perhaps the older settlers felt the chill of truth, but they turned from it as a man will seek shelter from the full blast of a winter gale. Not to look beyond the next corner will sometimes keep heart in a man...
     ...There was no definite victory, only a weary drawing apart of the opponents from exhaustion. Then began the interminable “peace talks,” which led to a few clean-cut solutions.
     Our main concern was that Beltane now seemed forgotten by the powers that had established it. Had we not long before turned to living off the land, and the land been able to furnish us with food and clothing, we might have been in desperate straits. Even the biannual government ships, to which our commerce and communication had sunk in the last years of the war, had now twice failed to arrive, so that when a ship finally planeted, it was a cause for rejoicing—until the authorities discovered it was in no way an answer to our needs but rather was a fifth-rate tramp hastily commandeered to bring back a handful of those men who had been drafted off-world during the conflict. Those veterans were indeed the halt and the blind—casualties of the military machine...
     ...“This is a wreck—”
     “It is about the best you can find nowadays,” I replied promptly. “Machines don’t repair themselves. The techneer-robos are all on duty at the labs. We have had no off-world supplies since Commander Tasmond lifted with the last of the garrison. Most of these hoppers are just pasted together, with hope the main ingredient of that paste.”
     Again I met his searching stare. “That bad, is it?” he asked quietly.
     “Well, it depends upon what you term bad. The Committee has about decided it is a good thing on the whole. They like it that off-world authority has stopped giving orders. The Free Trade party is looking forward to independence and is trying to beam in a trader. (ed note: the colony broadcasts an advertisement of the trade goods they have to offer, hoping to attract a free trader) Meanwhile, repairs go first for lab needs; the rest of it slides. But no one, at least no one with a voice in Committee affairs, wants off-world control back.”...
     ...“And they had better give up their dreams of trade, too. The breakup is here and now, boy. Each world will have to make the most of its own resources and be glad if someone else doesn’t try to take them over—”

From DARK PIPER by Andre Norton (1968)

Felchow und Sohn, seeing an excuse for an action which would raise it to incredible power, reduced Paley to Stone Age savagery.

An industrialized world (as Paley was) is an interlocking whole. Off-planet trade may amount to no more than five percent of its GDP; but when that trade is suddenly cut off, the remainder of the economy resembles a car lacking two pistons. It may make whirring sounds for a time, but it isn't going anywhere.

Huge as Felchow was, a single banking house could not have cut Paley off from the rest of the galaxy. When Felchow, however, offered other commercial banks membership in a cartel and a share of the lucrative escrow business, the others joined gladly and without exception. No one would underwrite cargoes to or from Paley; and Paley, already wracked by a war and its aftermath, shuddered down into the slag heap of history.

From "THE BONDING AUTHORITY" by David Drake (1979)

(ed note: Master Trader Hobar Mallow of the Foundation is talking trade with Commdor Asper, leader of the planetary empire of Korell.)

     He laid a friendly hand upon the trader's bulking shoulder, "But man, you have told me only half. You have told me what the catch is not. Now tell me what it is."
     "The only catch, Commdor, is that you're going to be burdened with an immense quantity of riches."
     "Indeed?" he snuffled. "But what could I want with riches? The true wealth is the love of one's people. I have that."
     "You can have both, for it is possible to gather gold with one hand and love with the other."
     "Now that, my young man, would be an interesting phenomenon, if it were possible. How would you go about it?"
     "Oh, in a number of ways. The difficulty is choosing among them. Let's see. Well, luxury items, for instance. This object here, now—"
     Mallow drew gently out of an inner pocket a flat, linked chain of polished metal. "This, for instance."
     "What is it?"
     "That's got to be demonstrated. Can you get a woman? Any young female will do. And a mirror, full length."
     "Hm-m-m. Let's get indoors, then."
     A young girl was before them. She bent low to the Commdor, who said, "This is one of the Commdora's girls. Will she do?"
     The Commdor watched carefully while Mallow snapped the chain about the girl's waist, and stepped back.
     The Commdor snuffled, "Well. Is that all?"
     "Will you draw the curtain, Commdor. Young lady, there's a little knob just near the snap. Will you move it upward, please? Go ahead, it won't hurt you."
     The girl did so, drew a sharp breath, looked at her hands, and gasped, "Oh!"
     From her waist as a source she was drowned in a pale, streaming luminescence of shifting color that drew itself over her head in a flashing coronet of liquid fire. It was as if someone had torn the aurora borealis out of the sky and molded it into a cloak.
     The girl stepped to the mirror and stared, fascinated.
     "Here, take this." Mallow handed her a necklace of dull pebbles. "Put it around your neck."
     The girl did so, and each pebble, as it entered the luminescent field became an individual flame that leaped and sparkled in crimson and gold.
     "What do you think of it?" Mallow asked her. The girl didn't answer but there was adoration in her eyes. The Commdor gestured and reluctantly, she pushed the knob down, and the glory died. She left — with a memory.
     "It's yours, Commdor," said Mallow, "for the Commdora. Consider it a small gift from the Foundation."
     "Hm-m-m.' The Commdor turned the belt and necklace over in his hand as though calculating the weight. "How is it done?"
     Mallow shrugged, "That's a question for our technical experts. But it will work for you without — mark you, without — priestly help."
     "Well, it's only feminine frippery after all. What could you do with it? Where would the money come in?"
     "You have balls, receptions, banquets — that sort of thing?"
     "Oh, yes."
     "Do you realize what women will pay for that sort of jewelry? Ten thousand credits, at least."
     The Commdor seemed struck in a heap, "Ah!"
     "And since the power unit of this particular item will not last longer than six months, there will be the necessity of frequent replacements. Now we can sell as many of these as you want for the equivalent in wrought iron of one thousand credits. There's nine hundred percent profit for you."
     The Commdor plucked at his beard and seemed engaged in awesome mental calculations, "Galaxy, how they would fight for them. I'll keep the supply small and let them bid. Of course, it wouldn't do to let them know that I personally—"
     Mallow said, "We can explain the workings of dummy corporations, if you would like. —Then, working further at random, take our complete line of household gadgets. We have collapsible stoves that will roast the toughest meats to the desired tenderness in two minutes. We've got knives that won't require sharpening. We've got the equivalent of a complete laundry that can be packed in a small closet and will work entirely automatically. Ditto dish-washers. Ditto-ditto floor-scrubbers, furniture polishers, dust-precipitators, lighting fixtures — oh, anything you like. Think of your increased popularity, if you make them available to the public. Think of your increased quantity of, uh, worldly goods, if they're available as a government monopoly at nine hundred percent profit. It will be worth many times the money to them, and they needn't know what you pay for it. And, mind you, none of it will require priestly supervision. Everybody will be happy."
     "Except you, it seems. What do you get out of it?"
     "Just what every trader gets by Foundation law. My men and I will collect half of whatever profits we take in. Just you buy all I want to sell you, and we'll both make out quite well. Quite well."
     The Commdor was enjoying his thoughts, "What did you say you wanted to be paid with? Iron?"
     "That, and coal, and bauxite. Also tobacco, pepper, magnesium, hardwood. Nothing you haven't got enough of."
     "It sounds well."
     "I think so. Oh, and still another item at random, Commdor. I could retool your factories."
     "Eh? How's that?"
     "Well, take your steel foundries. I have handy little gadgets that could do tricks with steel that would cut production costs to one percent of previous marks. You could cut prices by half, and still split extremely fat profits with the manufacturers. I tell you, I could show you exactly what I mean, if you allowed me a demonstration. Do you have a steel foundry in this city? It wouldn't take long."

(ed note: Eventually the planet Korell declares war on the Foundation. Since Korell has some huge warships supplied by the shrinking Galactic Empire, the Foundation just steadily retreats. Hobar Mallow is now president of the Foundation. He is talking with Jael, his chief of staff. Jael is fretting about Sutt, who is using the war in a bid to defeat Mallow in the next election. But Mallow does not seem to be concerned. It seems that since the war started, all trade between the Foundation and Korell has been cut off...)

     (Jael) "And your speech last night just about handed the election to Sutt with a smile and a pat. Was there any necessity for being so frank?"
     (Mallow) "Isn't there such a thing as stealing Sutt's thunder?"
     "No," said Jael, violently, "not the way you did it. You claim to have foreseen everything, and don't explain why you traded with Korell to their exclusive benefit for three years. Your only plan of battle is to retire without a battle. You abandon all trade with the sectors of space near Korell. You openly proclaim a stalemate. You promise no offensive, even in the future. Galaxy, Mallow, what am I supposed to do with such a mess?"

(ed note: Mallow explains everything to Sutt)

     (Mallow) "When I first landed on Korell," he began, I bribed the Commdor with the trinkets and gadgets that form the trader's usual stock. At the start, that was meant only to get us entrance into a steel foundry. I had no plan further than that, but in that I succeeded. I got what I wanted. But it was only after my visit to the Empire that I first realized exactly what a weapon I could build that trade into.
     "This is a Seldon crisis we're facing, Sutt, and Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.
     "In this case, —trade!"
     Sutt raised his eyebrows skeptically and took advantage of the pause, "I hope I am not of subnormal intelligence, but the fact is that your vague lecture isn't very illuminating."
     "It will become so," said Mallow. "Consider that until now the power of trade has been underestimated. It has been thought that it took a priesthood under our control to make it a powerful weapon. That is not so, and this is my contribution to the Galactic situation. Trade without priests! Trade alone! It is strong enough. Let us become very simple and specific. Korell is now at war with us. Consequently our trade with her has stopped. But, —notice that I am making this as simple as a problem in addition, —in the past three years she has based her economy more and more upon the nuclear techniques which we have introduced and which only we can continue to supply. Now what do you suppose will happen once the tiny nuclear generators begin failing, and one gadget after another goes out of commission?
     "The small household appliances go first. After a half a year of this stalemate that you abhor, a woman's nuclear knife won't work any more. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn't do a good job. The temperature-humidity control in her house dies on a hot summer day. What happens?"
     He paused for an answer, and Sutt said calmly, "Nothing. People endure a good deal in war."
     "Very true. They do. They'll send their sons out in unlimited numbers to die horribly on broken spaceships. They'll bear up under enemy bombardment, if it means they have to live on stale bread and foul water in caves half a mile deep. But it's very hard to bear up under little things when the patriotic uplift of imminent danger is not present. It's going to, be a stalemate. There will be no casualties, no bombardments, no battles.
     "There will just be a knife that won't cut, and a stove that won't cook, and a house that freezes in the winter. It will be annoying, and people will grumble."
     Sutt said slowly, wonderingly, "Is that what you're setting your hopes on, man? What do you expect? A housewives' rebellion? A Jacquerie? A sudden uprising of butchers and grocers with their cleavers and bread-knives shouting 'Give us back our Automatic Super-Kleeno Nuclear Washing Machines.'"
     "No, sir," said Mallow, impatiently, "I do not. I expect, however, a general background of grumbling and dissatisfaction which will be seized on by more important figures later on."
     "And what more important figures are these?"
     "The manufacturers, the factory owners, the industrialists of Korell. When two years of the stalemate have gone, the machines in the factories will, one by one, begin to fail. Those industries which we have changed from first to last with our new nuclear gadgets will find themselves very suddenly ruined. The heavy industries will find themselves, en masse and at a stroke, the owners of nothing but scrap machinery that won't work."
     "The factories ran well enough before you came there, Mallow."
     "Yes, Sutt, so they did — at about one-twentieth the profits, even if you leave out of consideration the cost of reconversion to the original pre-nuclear state. With the industrialist and financier and the average man all against him, how long will the Commdor hold out?"
     "As long as he pleases, as soon as it occurs to him to get new nuclear generators from the Empire."
     And Mallow laughed joyously, "You've missed, Sutt, missed as badly as the Commdor himself. You've missed everything, and understood nothing. Look, man, the Empire can replace nothing. The Empire has always been a realm of colossal resources. They've calculated everything in planets, in stellar systems, in whole sectors of the Galaxy. Their generators are gigantic because they thought in gigantic fashion.
     "But we, —we, our little Foundation, our single world almost without metallic resources, —have had to work with brute economy. Our generators have had to be the size of our thumb, because it was all the metal we could afford. We had to develop new techniques and new methods, —techniques and methods the Empire can't follow because they have degenerated past the stage where they can make any really vital scientific advance.
     "With all their nuclear shields, large enough to protect a ship, a city, an entire world; they could never build one to protect a single man. To supply light and heat to a city, they have motors six stories high, —I saw them — where ours could fit into this room. And when I told one of their nuclear specialists that a lead container the size of a walnut contained a nuclear generator, he almost choked with indignation on the spot.
     "Why, they don't even understand their own colossi any longer. The machines work from generation to generation automatically, and the caretakers are a hereditary caste who would be helpless if a single D-tube in all that vast structure burnt out.
     "The whole war is a battle between those two systems, between the Empire and the Foundation; between the big and the little. To seize control of a world, they bribe with immense ships that can make war, but lack all economic significance. We, on the other hand, bribe with little things, useless in war, but vital to prosperity and profits.
     "A king, or a Commdor, will take the ships and even make war. Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects' welfare for what they consider honor, and glory, and conquest. But it's still the little things in life that count — and Asper Argo won't stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years."

KORELL—...And so after three years of a war which was certainly the most unfought war on record, the Republic of Korell surrendered unconditionally, and Hober Mallow took his place next to Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin in the hearts of the people of the Foundation.


From FOUNDATION by Issac Asimov (1951)

The Styor had built their star empire long ago. Now it was beginning to crack a little at the seams. However, they still had galactic armadas able to reduce an enemy planet to a cinder, and they dominated two-thirds of the inhabited and inhabitable worlds.

So far their might could not be challenged by the League. Thus there was an uneasy truce, the Policy, and trade. Traders went where the Patrol of the League could not diplomatically venture. In the beginning of Terran galactic expansion some Styor lords had attempted to profit by that fact. Traders had died in slave pens, been killed in other various unpleasant ways. But the response of the Service had been swift and effective. Trade with the offending lord, planet or system had been cut off. And the Styor found themselves without luxuries and products which had become necessities. Exploiting the wealth of worlds, they needed trade to keep from stagnating, and to bolster up their economic structure—the Styor themselves now considering such an occupation below their own allowed employments of politics and war—and the Terrans were there to be used.

From THE SIOUX SPACEMAN by Andre Norton (1960)

      “Just for my own satisfaction, what kind of crisis?”
     Bulchand sketched it quickly. “There are two Earth type planets in this solar system. Avalon was the first to be colonized and developed rapidly. After a couple of centuries, Avalonians went over and settled on Catalina. They eventually set up a government of their own. Now Avalon has a surplus of industrial products. Her economic system is such that she produces more than she can sell back to her own people. There’s a glut.”
     Tog said demurely, “So, of course, they want to dump it in Catalina.”
     Bulchand nodded. “In fact, they’re willing to give it away. They’ve offered to build railroads, turn over ships and aircraft, donate whole factories to Catalina’s slowly developing economy.”

     Ronny said, “Well, how does that call for Section G agents?”
     “Catalina has evoked Articles Two of the UP (United Planets) Charter. No member planet of UP is to interfere with the internal political, socio-economic or religious affairs of another member planet. Avalon claims the Charter doesn’t apply since Catalina belongs to the same solar system and since she’s a former colony. We’re trying to smooth the whole thing over, before Avalon dreams up some excuse for military action.”

     Ronny stared at him. “I get the feeling every other sentence is being left out of your explanation. It just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, why is Avalon as anxious as all that to give away what sounds like a fantastic amount of goods?”
     “I told you, they have a glut. They’ve overproduced and, as a result, they’ve got a king-size depression on their hands, or will have unless they find markets.”
     “Well, why not trade with some of the planets that want her products?”
     Tog said as though reasoning with a youngster, “Planets outside her own solar system are too far away for it to be practical even if she had commodities they didn’t. She needs a nearby planet more backward than herself, a planet like Catalina.”

     “Well, that brings us to the more fantastic question. Why in the world doesn’t Catalina accept? It sounds to me like pure philantrophy on the part of Avalon.”
     Bulchand was wagging his pipe stem in a negative gesture. “Bronston, governments are never motivated by idealistic reasons. Individuals might be, and even small groups, but governments never. Governments, including that of Avalon, exist for the benefit of the class or classes that control them. The only things that motivate them are the interests of that class.”
     “Well, this sounds like an exception,” Ronny said argumentatively. “How can Catalina lose if the Avalonians grant them railroads, factories and all the rest of it?”
     Tog said, “Don’t you see, Ronny? It gives Avalon a foothold in the Catalina economy. When the locomotives wear out on the railroad, new engines, new parts, must be purchased. They won’t be available on Catalina because there will be no railroad industry because none will have ever grown up. Catalina manufacturers couldn’t compete with that initial free gift. They’ll be dependent on Avalon for future equipment. In the factories, when machines wear out, they will be replaceable only with the products of Avalon’s industry.”
     Bulchand said, “There’s an analogy in the early history of the United States. When its fledgling steel industry began, they set up a high tariff to protect it against British competition. The British were amazed and indignant, pointing out that they could sell American steel products at one third the local prices, if only allowed to do so. The United States said no thanks, it didn’t want to be tied, industrially, to Great Britain’s apron strings. And in a couple of decades American steel production passed England’s. In a couple of more decades American steel production was many times that of England’s and she was taking British markets away from her all over the globe.”

From PLANETARY AGENT X by Mack Reynolds (1961)


Trade wants to be free. The invisible hand will not be denied. If a government forbids the import of a trade good, it becomes a seller's market and the price to purchase said good rises. This creates a financial incentive on the traders and importers. The definition of traders and importers trying to avoid the government restriction is "smuggling". Some define smuggling as "international trade through an unauthorized route." The lesser reason to smuggle is if the item is not actually contraband, but there is an expensive import tax.

Smuggling rapidly becomes an arms race between the custom inspectors and the traders, as the smugglers think of new and creative ways to sneak their contraband in right under the nose of customs. Or an arms race between the border patrol and the traders. Naturally if the bootlegger is trying to avoid going through customs at all, they do not have bother with putting up the charade that they are really honest merchants. On the other hand, custom-hood-winkers do not have to deal with boarder patrol spacecraft crewed with trigger-happy agents with no sense of humor.

It doesn't really matter whether the forbidden item is drugs (drug-runners), firearms (gun-runners), alcohol (rum-runners), stolen property, fugitives, rebels, illegal immigrants, items to avoid paying taxes or tariffs on, or cheap imported commercial goods competing with the local economy (avoiding a trade embargo); market forces will have their say. Smuggling became a recognized problem in the 13th century, a few minutes after England created the first national customs collection system. The English smuggling problem only lessened after the tariff laws were liberalized under pressure from the free trade movement.

This is why Han Solo had that hidden compartment below the deck plates of the Millennium Falcon, and Malcom Reynolds had that concealed cubby hole in the side of the Serenity. Not to mention Northwest Smith, Esmar Tuek, Stella Star and Jenna Stannis.

Note that custom duties are border taxes paid on goods being imported, such duties are being avoided by smugglers. Excise taxes on the other hand are "inland" taxes paid on goods being moved internally in a nation, and are normally of no concern to interplanetary smugglers.

In the 1700's along the English coast, the high custom duties imposed on tea, wine, and distilled spirits made smuggling very profitable. So much that impoverished fishermen and seafarers found it to be so lucrative that for many communities smuggling was more economically significant than legal activities such as farming and fishing. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped it is said the most common name for a bar on the coast was The Smuggler's Inn. This can be adapted to a science fiction background if you can figure out some sort of poverty-stricken profession that requires regular travel between the planet's surface and low orbit. Keep in mind that "poverty" is relative.

Naturally a smuggler can make their life so much simpler if they can bribe or otherwise corrupt a government official to look the other way. This not only applies to giving a rustling handshake to a customs inspector, but also to large under-the-table sweetheart deals with the Parliamentary Off-Planet Trade Minister. The only difference is the size of the bribe and the size of the operation.

Occasionally the contraband item is being smuggled off planet instead of being smuggled into the planet. Illegal emigration, fugitives from justice, spies, stolen items, espionaged secret or confidential information, dangerous native animals, and so on. It matters not if the controlling government is trying to control import or export, they are creating an opportunity for a smuggler to make some money.

The government forbidding the import of goods might not be the government of the planet. The planet may be invested by a hostile fleet, under siege by an external enemy trying to starve them out. In this case the trader is not so much a smuggler as they are a blockade-runner. The runner might be a noble patriot working for free, an amoral mercenary being paid by the interdicted planet, or a slimy opportunist trying to make a killing by importing luxury items at inflated prices. The stakes are higher with blockade-running as compared with smuggling, since enemy combat spacecraft are probably armed quite a bit better than a little putt-putt customs border patrol boat.


"The ensign might want to give PO Harkness his head, Sir," MacBride had said quietly. "If anyone in the detachment can recognize a crook cargo setup, it's him. And -- " she'd given him one of her deadpan smiles " -- I've . . . discussed the importance of his assignment with him."

So now Tremaine shifted position slightly, moving aside to lean his elbow on a freight conveyer where he could watch Harkness and still keep the corner of his eye on the crewmen.

Harkness was prowling around the neatly stacked counter-grav cargo pallets with a copy of the manifest, checking canister labels. The weight of a magnetic tape reader bulged the thigh pocket of his coveralls, but the flap was still sealed. Now he slowed his label checks and bent a bit closer to a pallet, and Tremaine noted the way one of the crewmen by the tube tensed.

"Mr. Tremaine?" Harkness called without turning.

"Yes, PO?"

"I think you might find this interesting, Sir." It was amazing what a fatherly voice could come out of those battered, prize-fighter features. Harkness sounded like a teacher about to demonstrate a classroom experiment for a favored pupil, and Tremaine crossed the cargo bay to stand beside him.

"What is it, PO?"

"This, Sir." A blunt finger with scarred knuckles indicated the shiny silver customs tape running around the canister and, in particular, the Royal Customs Service seal with its small starship surmounted by the crowned Manticore and flanking, rampant Sphinx and Gryphon of the Kingdom's arms. It looked perfect to Tremaine.

"What about it?"

"Well, Sir," Harkness said ruminatively, "I can't be certain, but -- " The broad fingertip flipped the seal, and Tremaine blinked as it popped right off the tape it was supposed to be an integral part of. He bent closer and saw the clear plastic tape bridging the gap where the original seal had been sliced away.

"You know, Sir," Harkness went on in that same, thoughtful voice, "I'll bet those poor bloody -- pardon, Sir -- " he didn't sound especially apologetic, but Tremaine let it pass; he had other things on his mind " -- NPA sods have been doing their best without the right equipment for so long these fellows just got sloppy." He shook his head, a craftsman mourning slovenly workmanship. "Never would have gotten by a regular customs man."

"I . . . see." Tremaine glanced over his shoulder at the now acutely unhappy crewmen. One of them was sidling sideways towards the shuttle flight deck, and Tremaine nodded to Private Kohl. The Marine shifted position slightly and unsnapped his stunner holster. The moving crewman froze.

"What do you suppose is in there, PO?" the ensign asked brightly, beginning to enjoy himself.

"Well, Sir, according to this manifest, this here -- " Harkness thumped the canister " -- is a shipment of duralloy animal-drawn plows for delivery to the Hauptman Cartel factor on Medusa."

"Let's open it up and take a look," Tremaine said.

"Aye, aye, Sir." Harkness's broad grin showed teeth far too even and regular to be natural as he drew a forceblade from one capacious pocket. He flicked the switch, waking the tooth-twisting warning whine Manticoran law required of all such tools, and ran the invisible blade around the doctored Customs tape. Silver plastic slivered, and the soft "Shuuush" of equalizing pressure sounded as he sprang the canister.

He lifted the lid -- then paused, frozen in mid-movement.

"Well, well, well, well," he murmured, adding an absent-minded "Sir" as he remembered the ensign beside him. He shoved the lid fully up until it locked. "Mighty strange looking plowshares, I'd say, Mr. Tremaine."

"So would I," Tremaine said after a moment, leaning forward to stroke a hand over the lustrous, tawny-gold fur. The canister was two meters long by one wide and one deep, and it seemed to be completely full. "Is that what I think it is, PO?"

"If you think it's Gryphon kodiak max pelts it is, Sir." Harkness shook his head, and Tremaine could almost hear the credit terminal ringing behind his eyes. "Must be two, three hundred thousand dollars worth of them," the PO mused. "In this one canister," he added as an afterthought.

"And right off the controlled species list." Tremaine's voice was so grim the petty officer straightened and looked at him in surprise. The youngster beside him didn't look young at all as he stared down into the canister and then turned to glare at the wilting crewmen.

From ON BASILISK STATION by David Weber (1999)

(ed note: Thor needs to escape Earth to go to the asteroid belt. He has faked his death and is seeking passage with a smuggler named Mr. Shaw)

Thor nodded off, but was jerked awake abruptly when the buggy halted at a nondescript outcropping of rock. “Get out and give me a hand,” Mike said. Puzzled, Thor dismounted as Mike crossed to the rock and pried a section away. It swung open on hidden hinges and inside Thor saw a clutter of gear, most of which he could not identify. In one corner was a rack of laser rifles and handguns. All such weapons were highly illegal for civilians to possess. Thor helped Mike stow the camouflage net, then they unbolted the track-hider gadget from the back of the buggy. Apparently, this was a clandestine warehouse for smugglers to store the equipment they could not afford to be caught with. As they drove away Thor noticed that the area they had entered was heavily-trafficked, with crisscrossing tire tracks everywhere he looked. That seemed odd. He had assumed that they were headed for some clandestine smugglers port. This looked like the area near Armstrong (public lunar base).

They passed through a gap in a low ridge and then were looking out onto a broad plain flooring an ancient crater. One high wall of cliffs on the edge of the crater was studded with lights. “That’s Armstrong!” Thor said.

“Of course it’s Armstrong, you dummy,” Mike said disgustedly. “You want to get off Luna, don’t you? Well you need a spaceport for that.” He drove the buggy onto a crushed-gravel road slanting down the low crater wall. “Amateurs,” Mike groused. “I hate dealing with amateurs!” Thor decided to keep his mouth shut from then on. As they crossed the crater floor, a spidery landing craft descended to the floor on a plume of white-hot gas. It settled onto a pad and was lowered beneath the lunar surface.

Instead of heading for the airlocks of the main facility, to which Thor had always returned from his outings, Mike steered for a long row of utility locks near the landing pads. This area was a warren of old warehousing caves, tunnels, abandoned military facilities and other derelict structures. Even the short history of lunar settlement had been sufficient to produce this tangle of semi-abandoned facilities, and Thor suspected that some of the confusion was deliberate. He had studied several maps of this region, and all of them were mutually contradictory.

They passed through an airlock hatch with a number code painted on its face, over several earlier generations of numbers. The machinery was antiquated but well-maintained. Good machinery would last nearly forever on Luna, free from the corrosive effects of an atmosphere and its attendant moisture and microorganisms. Mike left the buggy in the lock and Thor unshipped his kit bag as the inner hatch cycled open. He followed Mike into a long, featureless corridor carved roughly out of the lunar rock and both men pulled off their helmets. Mike was the scar-faced redhead who had sat at the table near Thor and Shaw in the Earthlight room.

They passed into a room where silent men were working busily, packing things into crates and bundles. Thor and Mike climbed out of their suits and Mike called one of the men aside. “Get all the ID numbers off this suit,” he held up the suit Thor had been wearing, “and sell it over in Armstrong or someplace.” He flashed Thor a very brief, gap-toothed grin. “Moonsuit won’t do you no good where we’re going. You’ll need a rockjumper suit out there.”

They passed through a maze of tunnels and rooms. Mike seemed to navigate by cryptic marks painted on the walls in a multitude of colors. Then they were in Warehouse 17. Thor knew that this was a private facility rented by one of the outerworld transportation concerns. “Put your bag there,” Mike said, pointing to a wheeled cart stacked with personal kit bags. Thor tossed his on the top of the heap and followed Mike into a small room opening off the main warehouse area. To his surprise, it was a small bar. The tables were thinly occupied by spacers and dock workers, and a few people were playing electronic games at the bar, with the loser paying for the drinks. Mike strode to the rear of the room.

“Here he is, Boss,” Mike said.

Martin Shaw looked up from the table where he sat with the other man Thor had seen in the Earthlight Boom, the dark one with the stubble of hair and beard. “Have a seat, Taggart,” he invited. Thor and Mike both sat.

“You disappoint me, Mr. Shaw,” Thor said.

“How so?”

“Well, first the Earthlight Room, now this. " He waved at the busy warehouse facility beyond the barroom door. “It’s all kind of mundane. The holos back home all have people like you operating out of freewheeling buccaneer ports and clandestine landing sites, not using legitimate facilities.

Shaw showed the very faintest of smiles. “What do they know of people like me? Besides, hidden ports may sound romantic, but the idea is impracticable. There are damn near a century’s worth of spy satellites orbiting around this rock. A kid couldn’t launch a toy rocket out away from the settlements without something picking it up. No, smugglers have always known that even better than clandestine ports are ports with a large volume of legitimate traffic, so large that official inspection is perfunctory at best. And best of all is official cooperation.

“People are packing up here to leave,” Thor said. “Is that why the short notice I got?” A little, wheeled robot waiter came by the table and Thor punched an order. The drink was duly delivered up from the robot’s innards, in an inelegant but unbreakable plastic tube.

“You keep your eyes open,” Shaw admitted. “Yes, I’m closing down lunar operations. It’s been good here, but the new laws are cracking down hard. Mike will stay back to close down our facilities and sell off everything we’re not taking with us. I’ve decided to clear out now, before they shut off all our exits. Some of my competitors are staying around. People are getting desperate to get out and are paying high prices. That’s acting greedy and they’re going to regret it. They'll be caught when the net goes out.” Shaw seemed to be much more relaxed than the last time Thor had seen him, almost friendly. Perhaps the decision to pack up and go had relieved him of a lot of tension.

“So you think the isolationists and Earth Firsters are going to win?” Thor asked.

“They’ve won,” Shaw said. “They won years ago, but most people are just waking up to it. I saw it coming long before I left Earth. The signs were all there.”

The ship had several “holds,” actually just enormous, detachable cylinders adapted to carry cargo or passengers. Some of these were sealed and Shaw was reluctant to reveal what was in them. For an unabashed smuggler, that suggested to Thor that some things were unacceptable, even in the freewheeling society of the space settlers. Drive, holds and control were all in separate modules, connected by struts and passage tunnels. It was a common system for ships never intended to make planetfall, allowing great flexibility of size and function. “Also,” Shaw told Thor with a sharklike grin, “it makes it very difficult to keep up with how many and what type of ships are out here. If the authorities were looking for Spartacus, I'd break her up and rearrange her modules with other ships. You can have as many ships as you have command and drive modules.”

It must be a nightmare for customs authorities,” Thor observed.

“We do our humble best. Hijacked ships are never found again because they’re broken up and utilized or sold off as modules. You’ll have to go to a ship sale some time. There’s no pirate hangout like in the holos. Word just gets passed that there’s going to be ship hardware for sale and everybody just sort of congregates at a certain set of coordinates that all the bartenders seem to know about. I've seen whole government military vessels broken up and sold, weaponry and all.”

“Military!” Thor said, aghast. “I thought that was supposed to be impossible. Are there hijackers powerful enough to attack a Space Service ship?”

“Who attacks?” Shaw said. “Usually, it’s just a matter of paying someone to look the other way. The degree of corruption in the higher echelons of the military is immense and has increased tremendously in the last fifteen years. It was historically inevitable. I’ll let you read my monograph on the subject. There are other ways that service vessels make it onto the black market. Sometimes, a whole crew will decide to take early retirement from the service and bring their ship along with them.”

“I think that society out there will be quite different from what I anticipated,” Thor mused.

“I can guarantee it,” Shaw said.

From THE ISLAND WORLDS by Erick Kotani and John Maddox Roberts (1987)

There is stealth in space. All smugglers know this. It's inside your ship for the most part. Smugglers are very similar to pirates or the total opposite depending on who you ask. An old joke goes there was a smuggler who switched to piracy thereby raising the average IQ of both groups.

In terms of economics pirates risk the well being of their ships and crew to gain loot which is a 100% profit (minus a little liquid hydrogen for the lasers and drives assuming the target doesn't fight back). Smugglers are trying to beat out government duties, tariffs and taxes and running a much smaller risk of their freedom and ship.

Smuggling is fairly easy to grasp. You find a planet that imports and heavily taxes a commodity that is relatively cheap. You buy the commodity and deliver it to that planet in a way that avoids the tax man. Or better yet find a commodity that is highly sought after on one world but illegal. Buy it where it is legal, sneak it to where it is illegal and set blasters to gouge.There are a number of ways to do this.

The simplest way is to find or create a hiding place in your ship. Make sure it's a very good place and don't even bother stashing it behind the radiation shields. Customs has robots, drones or day laborers and make them look there first. You only have one shadow shield to look behind but there are way more corridors to check and customs has a lot of ships to check if you're doing it right.

Removable door, floor, and ceiling panels are much better and honor tradition. Optionally you can put your illicit cargo (if it's small enough) someplace the customs inspectors wouldn't want to go. So you might hide your load of hot jewels in the flooring of the crates holding your cargo of venomous rock pincers for Durella 3. The would be smuggler is encouraged to find the most dangerous, toxic and unpleasant materials to haul that he can. Check the dumpsters behind fast food chains. Hiding packages in your ship's recycling system is a fine dodge as well.

If you're dealing with high tech customs inspectors then they may have all manner of sensors to look through walls. An extra laver of deception will be necessary in this case. Merely blocking the sensors will raise all kinds of eyebrows. The trick then is to disguise your contraband as something innocuous. Stick those auto rifles in with the farming equipment. Hide the psi boosters in bottles of aspirin. For those who have a crew ready to go the extra parsec ... customs doesn't usually do internals scans of human beings.

Hiding items in plain sight is often possible. One gentleman scoundrel would have a chilled pitcher of martinis ready when the customs inspectors came aboard and offer them a libation. The inspectors never accepted and found anything until one old commander on his last day before retiring agreed to a drink. After the inspector nearly choked to death on the stolen moon crystals hidden in the ice the smuggler lost his captain's license, ship and was sentenced to 20 years for poisoning a public official.

Disguising one thing as another is another common dodge. The pseudoraptor you're transporting might be a member of an endangered subspecies protected by law but the inspector won't want to get close enough to see past the dye job.

There is also the old shell game. A smuggler took on a cargo of on a desert world with no refueling facilities. He made for the local gas giant to refuel his Scout Courier. The local authorities learned of his activities and when a Navy patrol ship jumped into the system called in the violation. The patrol ship chased the smuggler all the way to the gas giant and got within shooting range just as it dipped into the clouds. The patrol ship shut down it's power, and lay silent above one of the poles where it could observe and wait for the smuggler who was refueling via an equatorial orbit. That was when three Scout ships emerged and headed in different directions. The patrol ship might have caught one but not all three. Two got away and the one that did get boarded had nothing. They claimed communications system damage kept them from receiving the patrol ship's hails and transponder id. It was probably caused by lightning storms while refueling.

The hard part of smuggling involves dodging the customs inspectors entirely. Maybe you have the big score taking up most of your hold. It is possible to land unnoticed at many times though these sort of stunts are usually confined to starport classes of A or D. We're not counting class E or X. Anyone can land anytime at those worlds.

Type A 'ports simply have too much traffic to stop every ship. A bribe in the proper circles or an anonymous tip to another ship and you could slip in with the law abiding citizens. A class D starport will not have a huge amount of traffic but it will also not have extensive sensors nd a savvy navigator could chart a course away from prying eyes.

Smuggling can also be from point to point on a single world. A low tech and balkanized world might have battalions guarding its border but a minor space presence. Moving goods from one nation to another can be as lucrative as between planets and much quicker. Just get out when one side or another gets starship missiles to load in their launchers (you aren't the only smuggler you know.)

Space tactics also involve stealth via distraction. One group of smugglers hit on the Jump Blind Tactic. Ship A launches from Planet Backwater. It heads for a point in space where Ship B carrying illicit cargo emerges from jump space (timing is very important obviously.) When Ship B emerges Ship A vents a load of plasma from its reactor (and will later claim engine malfunction). Ship B has its emergence hidden by the hot plasma. The ships dock and the illicit cargo is transferred to Ship A. Ship A makes a show of limping back to port as Ship B jumps out of system (or uses various kinds of flares to mimic its jump signature) and heads to port looking innocent and freshly emerged from jump. When Ship A gets to port it peddles the illicit cargo having been through customs inspection already on its way out. One smuggler operating out of a type D port made a show of chronic drive trouble and limping back to port a couple times till the trouble was fixed. The port itself was kept quite busy by the couple of extra ships that showed up that month.

Some smugglers have used modified missiles to deliver contraband, launching the missiles on a ballistic to their destination. Others have launched missiles that flew ahead inert until the ship rendezvoused with a customs inspector and were then picked up. Missiles can be chilled way down till they have almost no heat signature.

One rule of smuggling is kept by almost everyone: no phony distress signals. Smuggling is a nonviolent crime (unless you serve deadly toxic gemstones to an inspector.) A distress call can pull search and rescue ships as well as navy patrols away from a real emergency. That can result in death and there's a world of difference between losing your captaincy and ship and being sentenced to death or life imprisonment. After all, who would smuggle you out then?

From THE MANY KINDS OF STEALTH by Rob Garitta (2016)

Snake-Oil and Scams

This section has been moved here.

Transport Nexus

A Transport Nexus is a crossroad spaceport for passengers, a port of entry, an orbital warehouses where valuable minerals from asteroid mines are stored and trade goods transshipped, or a "trade-town". Will include related services, such as bonded warehouses, trading posts, hotels and longshoremen.

A trading post planet might be the only source of some valuable luxury good (exotic gem stones, unique liquor, native artworks) so it can be located on Planet Sticks in the Boondocks Cluster. By way of contrast, transport nexuses are centers of commerce and will be "strategically" located. If one is talking about science fictional faster-than-light starship trade, they will be at important junctures and cross-roads. If one is talking about real-science Solar system trade, there ain't no such junctures, so strategic will probably mean on or in orbit around planets that are important markets for interplanetary trade goods. You cannot have permanent junctures when the destination planets are constantly changing their position relative to each other.


Many cities have acquired an icon in the modern sense: a signature image, usually a monumental structure, that instantly connotes it. The modern era prototype is surely the Eiffel Tower, famously visible from every apartment window in Paris.

San Francisco has two such icons, the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars, and it is a curiously interesting fact that both of them are transportation infrastructure. (Disclaimer: The bridge tower in the image is part of the Bay Bridge, not the Golden Gate, which is not conveniently juxtaposed with the cable lines.) I can't think of any other city that is so much symbolized by part of its public transit system. Perhaps the old classic London double decker buses come closest.

Bridges are iconic for many cities, well justified by the rule of cool, plus the symbolism. But not iconic for any great port city, that I can think of, is its actual reason for being, its waterfront. (Though I'd guess that the Ferry Building is iconic to locals).

Some celebrated facts about San Francisco, such as its hills and fog, are due to purely local circumstance. But most are rather characteristic of transport nexi. Far away from their own varied kitchens, people need to eat, so "half the town was restaurants, and all of them were good," an assertion still substantially true. People are far from their own beds, too, thus the other half of town.

Orbital stations are the well established transport nexi of space, going back to rocketpunk days. But science fiction has, on the whole, been slow to examine

and exploit their potential. In written SF only Cherryh comes immediately to mind as treating space stations as much more than bus terminals.

(My reading is grossly fragmentary, and other examples are welcome, but I believe my overall point stands. Hollywood, on the other hand, discovered with if your 'ship' is a space station, it works like Dodge City. The action can arrive by stagecoach spaceship, and you don't need to create a whole new planet every week.)

One reason for the neglect of stations may be that that a large, ramified space station would be the most urban of environments, and space SF has a deep rooted anti-urban tradition. The colonists were always escaping an overcrowded Earth of dystopian cities, heading out to terraformed or extrasolar worlds of, well, wide open spaces. It was mid 20th century suburbanization on a cosmic scale.

Of the two writers who did most to shape our conception of space travel, Heinlein was fixated on the political ideal of the Jeffersonian yoeman farmer, while Clark had a William Morris streak, and tended to portray his idealized futures as a sort of rustic English exurbia. (Yet in The City and the Stars, the stasis of civilization is broken by Alvin of Diaspar, not by anyone from stuffily superior, rustic Lys.)

Isaac Asimov was an unabashed urbanophile - the man who gave us Trantor, after all. But he was not much interested in the details of space travel, and wrote very little rocketpunk. The Spacers in his robot 'verse, in fact, can be read as a fairly withering commentary on the standard vision of space colonization.

In Realistic™ space futures, stations may be not only the center of the action, but in human terms nearly all of it. A research base on Mars might grow into a college town, but activities such as mining are be highly automated. Human presence will tend to grow up around the transport nexi, for the reason cities always have, because that is where people are coming and going.

Even in an operatic setting of shirtsleeves colony worlds, my money would be on stations as centers of the action, and a network of stations might be the most 'natural' form of interstellar polity. Star Wars, with its rather Asimovian setting, puts one famous scene on a planet surface instead of a station, but still captures the essential Romance of cities:

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy ... most of the best freighter pilots are to be found here."

(ed note: do check out the comments)

From TRANSPORT NEXUS by Rick Robinson (2010)

From earliest times the world's great trading route had run from the eastern Mediterranean down the Red Sea, and across towards India and China. There is evidence of the Egyptians and Babylonians going as far south as Somalia in the second millennium B.C., and east towards India. Throughout the life of Alexander the Great this trade route was developed and held open as much as anything by his use of coinage. Alexander's mark was accepted from India to the Lebanon, from south Russia to the upper reaches of the Nile. In 331 B.C. he decided to found a city at the most convenient point to handle the flood of commodities criss-crossing his empire. The city was to be built in stone at a place where two natural harbours, facing east and west, would permit landfall whichever way the wind was blowing at the time.

Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile, became the greatest trading capital of the world. From the south, from Somalia, came spices. From the Sudan came elephants, iron and gold. From France, Germany and Russia came furs and amber; from England, tin. Alexandria took goods from all over the world and redirected them to their destinations. Dio Chrysostom said of it, in the first century A.D., 'The city has a monopoly of the shipping of the entire Mediterranean ... situated as it is at the crossroads of the whole world.' After Alexander's death the city was ruled in turn by Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians and finally Romans. For six hundred years Alexandria prospered, both as a trading community, and as the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean — thanks to the great Library and Museion, founded not long after the city was built. Here, the greatest teachers of the time gathered to write and to give lectures, supported by public funds, in one of the ten halls, each devoted to one of the subjects taught on the curriculum. There were rooms for research and study, and quarters for teachers in residence.

From CONNECTIONS by James Burke (1978)

Mission House was too humble a name for the power it signified.

The Confederate Mission for a major junction planet such as Hybreasil covered half a dozen city blocks on a side at the very center of the city. Other buildings might rise taller, gleam more brightly in the afternoon sun, aspire to greater architectural glory than the functional gray boxes that made up a Mission House—but in terms of the business conducted within, not one of them could match Mission House for prestige or influence.

Here was the Exchange, business nexus for twenty worlds. Men and women from the houses of the major compradores and a thousand smaller firms moved among the towering pale holograms with their flickering messages of profit and loss. Beyond and beneath the Exchange were the Warrens, where the strongest of those firms held their offices and economic competition became war, conducted by other means. Confederate Intelligence swept the Warrens periodically, not so much in hope of curtailing the more colorful business practices there as in the hope that those practices might have produced hardware new and interesting, worth issuing to its own operatives.

North of the commercial building, across the broad and verdant inner courtyard, was Government House, oldest building of the complex, a model in miniature for the structures that followed. It was not the capital of Hybreasil as such, although decisions were taken there that had as much effect on the colony as any law enacted in the PanDistrict Council. The various offworld embassies might keep elaborate offices in the taller, more prepossessing spires surrounding Mission House, or maintain luxurious lodges in the outlying agrarian districts, but they conducted their real business in Mission House, where the Confederacy's Agent oversaw the maneuvering between worlds. The Council could pass its legislation, and the embassies could strike their bargains, but it was the Agent who controlled the Regional Fleet Arm units insystem and ensured that the interest of the Confederacy was felt in the affairs of its wards. And it was to the ground floor of Government House that Moses Callahan came, to the offices of the Bureau of Shipping and Mariner's Hall: two small, aged rooms, all the space deemed necessary to attend to the shoreside end of the thread that linked the worlds.

From THE SHATTERED STARS by Richard S. McEnroe (1984)

      Xanabar lays across the Spiral Arm, a sprawling sphere of influence vast, mighty solid at the core. Only the far-flung boundary shows the slight ebb and flow of contingent cultures that may win a system or two today and lose them back tomorrow or at hundred years from now. Xanabar is the trading post of the galaxy, for only Xanabar is strong enough to stand over the trading table when belligerents meet and offer to take them both at once if they do not sheathe their swords. For this service Xanabar assesses her percentage, therefore Xanabar is rich. Her riches buy her mercenaries to enforce her doctrines. Therefore Xanabar is rotten at the under-core, for mercenaries have no god but gold.

     The clatter of a hundred tongues mingled with the clink of glasses and floated througll strata of smoke from the burning weeds of a hundred planets. From one of the tables, voices rise in mild disagreement. There is a jeering laugh from one side and a roar of anger from the other. Two men rise and face one another ready to follow their insults with violence. Before the eruption can start, a mercenary steps forward on lithe feet and lightly catches the back-swung arm, a quick hand removes the poised glass before it can be thrown into the adversary's face.

     "Sit!" says the mercenary in a cold voice, and they sit still glaring at one another.
     "Now," says the mercenary, “settle your differences by talk. Or depart in opposite directions. This is Xanabar!"
     "He lies! He brags!"
     "I do not lie. They are barbarians. I do not brag. I can bring you one."
     "A wager," said the mercenary. “A wager. Xanabar can take no tax in blood." He faces one. “You claim you can do that which he says you can not." Then not waiting for a reply he faces the other, "And if he does, how much are you willing to pay?"
     "How much is his life worth?"
     "How much are you willing to pay?" demands the mercenary coldly.
     "Five hundredweight in crystal-cut."
     "An honorable sum. Do you agree?"
     "Not enough—"
     "For a task as easy as you claim it to be," said the mercenary, "Five hundredweight of crystal-cut seems honorable."
     "But it means—"
     "We in Xanabar are not interested in the details. Only in the tax. An honest wager-contract, outlanders. Otherwise I rule that your eruption here disturbed the peace."
     The two outlanders look at one another; schoolboys caught fighting in the alley by a monitor who demands a bite of their apple in lieu of a visit to the principal. As if loath to touch one another they reach forward hesitantly and handshake in a quick light grip.
     "Good!" glows the mercenary. He waves a hand and his fellows converge with contract-platen and etching stylus. "Now, gentlemen, please state the terms for Xanabar."

     Buregarde said, "Hit him low, Peter. Here come the boys."
     "Just once—for fun?"
     "No. I want our money-grabbing (mercenary) Peacekeeper to carry a message to His Excellency (ruler of Xanabar).

     I want His Excellency to read some Terrestrial History. Once upon a time there was a place called the Byzantine Empire that laid across the trade routes. The upper crust of people used to serve the Presence of God in a golden throne whilst their underlings dealt in human slaves and procured comely concubines for the emperor; their policemen took bribes and human life was cheap. And when Byzantium fell, all the world was forced to seek a new trade route. So tell His Excellency that he'd better clean up his own foul mess, or some barbarians will clean it up for him."

From HISTORY REPEATS by George O. Smith (1959)

Mobile Transport Nexus

In a rocketpunk universe, a transport nexus would be in a space station. Now, the thing about space stations is that they are basically a spacecraft without an engine. Which means if you add an engine you suddenly have a mobile transport nexus.


(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Castles in the Sky: History

Once in a while people put aside their unlimited desire for racism and war to give into a baser impulse: trade.

Trade is a simple concept. I have a thing here that took my local resources to produce and is unique to my environment. You have a thing there that took your local resources to produce and is unique to your environment. I would like your thing. You would like my thing. Let’s exchange and we both have the things and we are both richer for it. And we will sell what we traded into our local economies at an enormous mark up and make a fat payday.

Overland trade is the simplest method to execute but carries the most risk for the lowest payout. While anyone can fill a wagon with goods and head to parts unknown, the road hides dangers: weather, disease, hostile governments, the dreaded Head Tax, unforgiving terrain, long trip times, bandits, war, and spoilage. A dromedary, the best vehicle for crossing desert, tundra, steppe and mountains, transports about 1/2 a ton per animal. A dromedary train of 50 provides almost 50Klbs of trade goods. The payout is good, but the risk forces people to search for better methods of transport.

The sea is orders of magnitude less risky and more profitable than the road. A single caravel carries up to 50 tons of trade goods – twice an entire dromedary train for trips half as long. And the sea removes some risks – bandits, mountains, desert, the Head Tax, random wars – for different risks of equal or higher value – starvation, scurvy, pirates, storms, and getting lost at sea. Yet, the large cargo space, maneuverability, shortened trip times, and higher profits convinced countries to invest heavily in sea ports and naval technology.

For most of history, with only occasional levitate spell, the sea was the preferred method of trade until land was unavoidable. Cargo rode in ship bellies and took short, overland trips to reach final destinations. Merchant adventurers boarded ships to lands unknown and returned with holds full of spice, rare weapons, textiles, and gems. Ports grew and flourished.

Air travel is vastly preferable to either overland or sea trade. Unhindered by terrain with the shortest possible trips between two points, air travel tantalizingly promises vast riches. Whoever got themselves up there, traveled from point A to point B, filled a hold with goods, and returned, would win the game of trade.

A merchant wizard named Silenius Vox made his fortune on sea trade. He retired and invested his gains in magical experimentation. First, he levitated his outbuilding a couple of feet and hovered it overnight. It crashed and splintered in the morning. Fresh off his victory, he retooled the spell and levitated the barn. It crashed.

Silenius Vox, obsessed, worked for years furiously levitating this building and that. He burned all his cash on reagents and apprentices attempting to make the buildings move. Near to giving up and despairing at a lifetime of failure, Silenius changed a single mystical word and made his breakthrough. The Vox Mass Levitate spell ripped his manor house from the ground, flew it 3000 feet in the air, and, pushing apprentices into service to maintain the spell, held it there. Victory at last!

Silenius Vox passed away soon after but his apprentices continued the research. Maturing to Master Wizards, Silenius Vox’s former apprentices perfected the Vox Mass Levitate spell. They levitated houses for the wealthy and powerful.

Spells of such incredibly utility attract government attention. Before the third set of apprentices matured to Master, the King pressured and bribed wizards to develop a bigger, grander, and more powerful spell. The true maximal extent of the spell was the castle. Attempts to levitate palaces or walled cities failed when reaching some unknown scalability limit in the spell. No amount of money, wizards, power or reagents extended above this constraint; a standard sized castle was the best the Vox Mass Levitate could do. Yet, this was not wasted effort. During the discovery of spell’s limits, the wizards figured out how to move the castle in three dimensions.

This was the key.

Soon, Flying Castles wreaked slow motion havoc upon the flying castle-less neighbors. A period of open warfare and conquest followed where those without Flying Castles fell to those who did. It was an age of darkness and death from above.

But, governments could not keep this valuable technology secret. Thieves and spies made off in the night with the spells. Assailants kidnapped wizards and tortured them for their knowledge. Technology spread to the nations until the Flying Castle-less and the Flying Castled were at parity.

Wars never stopped, as they never do, but the Flying Castle technology fell into merchant class hands. While local wars are great for profits, long distance trade was better. A Flying Castle carried 1000 tons of cargo space over the caravel’s 50 in a single round trip. Nothing, not wars, nor pestilence, nor death slows down the urge to trade and make great profits.

The great Port cities turned into the great Flying Castle docking cities. Warehouse space flourished. The rich took out massive shares in trade expeditions. Companies formed around Flying Castles. Soon, majestic Flying Castles dotted foreign skies.

Castles in the Sky: Mechanical Considerations

A flying castle needs two features to operate: a continuous magic spell keeping the castle airborne and a method of locomotion.

Early in Flying Castle Technology when the apprentices and grand-apprentices of Silenius Vox still lived, singular wizards and their apprentices kept the castles aloft. The Vox Mass Levitate spell requires 24 hour maintenance, refresh and reagents to keep airborn. Should the spell stop, the castle, an unaerodynamic box made of rock, plunges majestically but quickly to the ground. In the first Flying Castle years before merchant companies perfected maintenance, sad crashed remains of failed experiments and lax apprentices lay side-up and parapet-down in distant cow pastures.

During the period of war and conquest, teams of military-inclined wizards lived in the castle and worked in six hour shifts. The spell’s high level strain was incredibly taxing. The mortality rate among apprentices forced to keep a Flying Castle battle-ready was appallingly high. Keeping a fleet of military-ready Flying Castles looked prohibitive.

Death is the sort of problem ingenious minds solve and solve they did. By time the Flying Castles fell into the hands of merchants, countries employed three solutions:

  1. Offer wizards and their teams substantial shares of the trade. More than a few wizards made their fortune on a single round distant trip across the world, exchanging magic items for silks and porcelain, and returning alive and whole. It’s deadly on the apprentices who carry the burden of maintaining the spell during the flight but financially rewarding for the Master Wizard. However, this is not particularly financially rewarding for the merchants who put up the stake, finance the expedition, and absorb all the risk. The merchants would rather not share all their shares of the trip with the wizard. But this works, and many Flying Castle Trade Companies employ this method.

  2. Impress the magical-wielding “dark races” (Dark Elves, Fiends, Demons, Illitids, etc) into service via Murder Hobo-based conquest. Invade their lands, take their children into Mamluk-like slavery, train them into strict magical arts, and force them to spend their lives flying castles. In these realms, the King himself owns these slaves. They are property of the state and leased to merchant use for heavy fees and taxation. And, dark races raised as wizards to fly castles often end up as powerful magical castes within their originating and slave-taking societies – carrying its own risks.

  3. Gnomish and other tinkering societies use a magic item/mechanical approach. They build enormous magic engines to automatically feed reagants and spell maintenance into the Vox Mass Levitate spell. This requires no wizards or slaves, but the merchant must bring on a team of gnomes for engine maintenance, give up cargo space for the engine, and risk suddenly plummeting from the sky should the engine seize up and the spell cease operation. But Gnomes are adventurous sorts. They often join the Merchant Company as members, invest their own money in the expedition, and perform their own engine maintenance. And the engines are mostly reliable. There’s only been a few massive crashes in the last few years…

That leaves the merchants with solving locomotion. After generations of development, and combined with supplementary magic spells, the box-like and air resistant flying castle has three methods of direct movement:

  1. Enormous magic sails. Fly high enough in the sky and the powerful trade winds will push a castle along the trade wind route. This method requires a navigator with strong knowledge of the trade winds, careful map reading, compasses, and recognition of known land masses from the sky. It also needs a man at arms who runs a tight sail maintenance crew. This is the safest and most common method of moving flying castles from destination to destination.

  2. Ley Lines. Smart wizards tap into the ley lines running along the ground and use them as a “super highway” for flying castles between cities. They can draw the power up into themselves and expend it as propulsion. This method allows faster travel than sails but requires both the ley lines staying put and flowing where the Flying Castle needs to go – neither always true. It also requires a wizard on board.

  3. Gnomish technology to rig up combinations of magic engines, windmills, and unspeakable bits of steampunk to gather wind up the front and expend it out the back as propulsion. This will get the Flying Castle where it wants to go, when it wants to go, in the direction it wants to go, with no limits on travel or movement. It might also explode.

Ingenious minds work today solving the air resistance problem.

With levitation and movement solved, Flying Castle merchants, captains and engineers must solve a number of other thorny issues:

  1. Landing is not something a Flying Castle can do in a foreign port unequipped and unexpecting an enormous flying fortress full of merchants, boxes and goods. Wizards, should they be available on the flight, provide levitation “elevators” to move cargo to and from the ground – the Vox Mass Levitate spell is good for more than moving houses and castles. Those Flying Castles staffed with gnomes employ dirigible and hot-air balloon technology to move seamlessly from sky to ground. These dirigibles carry a ton of cargo, collapse into storable containers and reinflate with heat. And, like other gnomish technologies, they occasionally explode.

  2. Flying castles can still get lost in a heavy storm, deep fog, or prohibitive cloud cover. Navigational magics and charting technology advanced rapidly once air travel became possible but the remains of lost castle still lie in forests, various deserts, and crashed into mountain tops. Blowing out to sea is the biggest risk for Flying Castles. The featureless ocean gives no clues to lost navigators. Navigators are armed with locational magics to navigate them back toward land in case of storm. Lost at sea means running out of food and starving, or killing the magic team keeping the flying castle aloft and disappearing into the ocean, lost forever.

  3. Food is less an issue on Flying Castles than on long distance sea voyages but still faces similar restrictions. The food does not rot from exposure to salt water. Castles have larger cargo warehouse spaces for food than ships. With green open areas, Flying Castles carries cattle (which has an issue, see #5), growing plots, and fruit trees. But without refrigeration – somewhat solved by magic – food will spoil. The green areas cannot feed the entire crew and merchant passengers, only supplement to hold off scurvy. Smart navigators plan food refuel stations along their routes to ensure the crew does not starve.

  4. “Dumping” is a real legal issue for Flying Castles. In the first salient and heady years of flight, captains solved the issue with waste by dumping it over the side on the unsuspecting people below. Those living on the path of trade winds or ley lines learned the hard way they were under Flying Castles. Before long, dumping became an issue of international concern and a body of legal entanglements. Today, captains allocate a percentage of valuable castle cargo and living to magical waste containment and management while flying over any known and populated lands or treaty areas. The gnomes have solutions which a few enterprising captains have installed, but the explosion risk is often too high for captains to contemplate.

Otherwise, living in a Flying Castle is much like living in a cross between a ship on a long distance voyage and a regular castle. It’s comfortable to passengers and ideal for long distance hauls through the sky.

Castles in the Sky: Trade

Triangle trade is a simple and extremely profitable concept. An example:

  1. High Elves desire silver as they melt the coins down and turn them into jewelry. In return for chests of silver, they sell their carefully hand-crafted ghostly textiles, super common to them but rare to everyone else.

  2. The Dwarves, who have strained relations to the High Elves but not with the people flying castles, exchange the holds of Elven textiles for Dwarven magical weapons and armor.

  3. The Murder Hobos at home pay premium price (in silver) for Dwarven magical weapons and armor which they use to murder various indigenous demi-humans for more silver.

Around and around the Flying Castle goes, taking a markup at each step, and selling to those who want things and buying oversupply. This is not limited to Elven textiles and Dwarven magical weapons – Flying Castles trade in rare and precious magic items and spells, spices, other textiles, rare food stuffs, inventions, technology, finished goods, and beings from far away continents.

Nations and merchants cave to the urge to maximize their profits. One castle is great. It brings home 1000 tons in possible profit. Two castles are better. A treasure fleet of castles is best. Five castles flying together lowers risk from loss on the voyage, almost guarantees someone returns home, and, at its most optimistic, delivers almost 5000 tons of cargo back to the Mother Nation. Who doesn’t want a treasure fleet? The might, the majesty, the awe, the sheer projection of wealth and power of five castles hanging with a slight hint of menace over foreign skies and distant ports is worth it.

Although this sort of thing has drawbacks. One country, in the quest to conquer its neighbors, sent out a fleet of its entire nation in castles on a single triangle trade mission and returned with warehouses full of goods for sale. Too bad they ripped up their entire border defense in search of profit. Their neighbors took advantage of a castle-less nation devoid of wizards and invaded on their own recognizance. By time the trade mission returned, they had no home nation to return to.

This was a lesson in moderation. You can send your castles, but you cannot send all your castles. (Note, the trade fleet did fine – they just declared a new nationality and sold in foreign currency. Merchants don’t care about governments. They only care about trade laws.)

Later, wise nations invested in castle building for the express purposes of turning them into flying cargo trade fleets. But the lesson held – and those who learned this lesson developed their fleets for both trade and war.

An interesting facet of the triangle trade available to the Flying Castle and expressly unavailable to ships or overland travel is the ability to finish goods while in transit. The castle has space for:

  • Warehousing components;
  • Warehousing advanced and finished goods;
  • Feeding and housing artisans who can take components and complete finished goods.

This requires merchants to give up precious cargo space to production space. He could stuff more Elven textiles per square footage in his castle instead of providing airy and sunny work spaces. The merchant must make this financial call: if the finished good fetches a higher price in the market than the cost of finishing the good on board plus the loss of other possible sales, he will commit to hosting on-board artisans. Some trade missions do. Some don’t.

Those who choose to produce in-flight expressly target trade ports selling raw materials: cotton for thread, molasses for rum, reagents for complex spells, mithril and adamantine for magic weapons. Artisans produce small but high performing goods in their on board workshops. By time the Flying Castle reaches the next port, the merchants can flip what was a buy of raw materials as highly priced finished goods. Then they can purchase the very best of the best their host nation has to offer – the porcelain bowls, the highest quality coffees and teas – and ship them back home for maximum profit.

And thus, theoretically, everyone makes money.

Problems crop up in the otherwise tame and civilized triangle trade when two nations both want a monopoly in one rare and valuable good. For example, both Flying Castles wish to sell a high performing rare Elven mithril armor crafted only by one tribe of Elves living on a distant and nicely tropical island. Controlling that good – and the island – and monopolizing it allows one nation to reap the profits while the other nation to pay sky high and price-controlled prices. The potential profits are huge.

It’s in the best interests of Murder Hobos, and the two nations, to try to control that island, its goods, and its inhabitants. In go the swords and mercenaries. One might think the Elves on the island making armor would have something to say about all this. But to have a say, they need to get a Flying Castle. Right now what they have are coconuts and really nice hammocks. The Elves are out of luck.

Here the nations do what nations do. They do enter into far off hostilities. They ship fireball-throwing cannons instead of cotton thread. And they get into a hot shooting war over islands and Elves.

And now we know how they work and why they go places, Flying Castles fight! Next week, we sail religions around the world, launch ground invasions, drop bombs, dog fight and go to war over trade goods and land!

Now, let me take a moment to mention James Blish's classic Cities in Flight series. In it, they invent paragravity machines called Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generators (commonly called "Spindizzies"). These can lift spacecraft into orbit, move them around the solar system, and land them. They are also a FTL drive.

The amusing point is that the efficiency of a spindizzy goes up with the mass of the spacecraft. This means spacecraft were big. Huge, even. Finally entire cities were uprooted and turned into starships. The latter novels center around the adventures of New York, basically Manhattan island. The "Okie" cities became migrant laborers of the galaxy, traveling between planetary colonies. Upon arrival they can land the entire city on the planet under spindizzy power (lacking hand-waving paragravity, it makes more sense for mobile space stations to merely park into a convenient orbit and use surface to orbit shuttles).

Much like Flying Castles, actually.

If you optimize your mobile space station less towards "transport nexus" and more towards "military force projection", and have the resources of a galactic empire behind you, the result is more like the Death Star from Star Wars.

In the classic novel Gulliver's Travels, part III has our hero encountering the flying island of Laputa. It flies by virtue of magnetic levitation, controlled by the Laputans. The tyrant king controls the land of Balnibarbi, coincidentally the area Laputa can fly over. Rebel regions are brought to heel by either:

  1. Laputa hovers over the rebel region for a while. Region is deprived of sunlight and rain, thus causing crop failure
  2. Laputa conducts aerial bombardment, dumping large bolders on rebel cities
  3. In extreme cases, Laputa lowers itself on the rebel city, crushing it

The crush option is a last resort. While Laputa has a bottom plate of adamant 200 yards thick, crushing a rebel city could possibly damage the plate.

The city of Lindalino is the only successful rebel. They constructed large towers at the four corners of the city. On the top they placed loadstones (natural magnets). Since Laputa flies and moves by magnetic levitation, the towers are a defense. If Laputa got too close, the towers would either cause Laputa to crash or be pinned in place forever.


(ed note: The spindizzy powered Okie City of New York comes to its final rest in a remote planet in the Magellenic clouds. There they find another Okie city named IMT (Interstellar Master Traders) which has been stranded there for several centuries due to spindizzy failure. The original crew is still running the place, since Okies use anti-agathic lifespan-prolonging drugs. The crew has spent the time amusing themselves lording over the primitive human colonists.

The people of New York recognize IMT, who are wanted for crimes of genocide in the Thor V incident. But New York feigns ignorance.

IMT contracts New York to fix IMT's failed spindizzy. New York mayor Amalfi agrees, but it puzzled why IMT wants this. He muses over things while standing with a local primitive colonists named Karst.)

Behind Amalfi, Karst began to sing, in an exceedingly scratchy voice, but very softly—a folk tune of some kind, obviously. The melody, which once had had to do with a town named Kazan, was too many thousands of years old for Amalfi to recognize it, even had he not been tune deaf. Nevertheless, the mayor abruptly found himself listening to Karst, with the intensity of a hooded owl sonar-tracking a field mouse. Karst chanted:

“Wild on the wind rose the righteous wrath of Maalvin,
Borne like a brand to the burning of the Barrens.
Arms of hands of rebels perished then,
Stars nor moons bedecked that midnight.
IMT made the sky

Seeing that Amalfi was listening to him, Karst stopped with an apologetic gesture. “Go ahead, Karst,” Amalfi said at once. “How does the rest go?”

“There isn’t time. There are hundreds of verses; every singer adds at least one of his own to the song. It is always supposed to end with this one:

“Black with their blood was the brick of that barrow,
Toppled the tall towers, crushed to the clay.
None might live who flouted Maalvin,
Earth their souls spurned spaceward, wailing,
IMT made the sky

“That’s great,” Amalfi said grimly. “We really are in the soup—just about in the bottom of the bowl, I’d say. I wish I’d heard that song a week ago.”

“What does it tell you?” Karst said wonderingly. “It is only an old legend.”

“It tells me why Heldon wants his spindizzies fixed. I knew he wasn’t telling me the straight goods, but that old Laputa gag never occurred to me—more recent cities aren’t strong enough in the keel to risk it. But with all the mass this burg packs, it can squash us flat—and well just have to sit still for it!”

“I don’t understand—”

“It’s simple enough. Your prophet Maalvin used IMT like a nutcracker. He picked it up, flew it over the opposition, and let it down again. The trick was dreamed up away before space flight, as I recall.

From Earthman, Come Home by James Blish (1955)

(ed note: this was intended for a medieval fantasy background such as Dungeons & Dragons. But while reading it, mentally replace "flying castles" with "mobile space stations" and replace "town" with "planetary colonies". The author Multiplexer is highly skilled at applying modern economic theory to fantasy situations.)

Castles in the Sky: Religion

A religion encompasses more than beliefs explaining how the world works, where it began, and how it will end. It is a language guiding community morals, ethics and communication on wide range of human and demi-human interactions. It informs the legal code, marketplace ethics, and the rules of trade.

For example, polytheistic civilization A worships, among its extensive pantheon, Bob the Trade God. Bob the Trade God encourages all His worshippers to travel, establish markets, build trade relationships, and make loads of money. If one follows the Scriptures of Bob, one knows Bob requires a small song, three spins widdershins and a tiny dance to close a deal instead of, say, a signature on a contract and a firm handshake. It’s a little prayer to Bob.

Bob’s paladins, clerics and scholars constructed a legal framework including recording spins, their number, and their duration for when someone challenges a contract in court. Bob’s merchant class – his most strident followers – take His Holy Word, venture into the world and trade among other Bob followers. This makes Bob happy, Bob’s clerics happy, and Bob’s followers happy.

And now Bob’s followers fly.

Inventing Flying Castles affected the Gods themselves. Bob now belongs to an entire pantheon who believes, whole heartedly, that flying castles are a Good Thing. They all knit in a bit of flight into their Theology to maximize worship. The birth Goddess births the clouds at propellers. Brandy, the Goddess of Tinkering became the Goddess of the Engine. Once flying castle technology, beloved by the rich and powerful, spread throughout the society, the Gods “approved.” The Sky God George, once gracing thunderstorms, lightning, and War, muscled out other potential Gods and Goddesses to personally patronize Flying Castles. Clerics “discovered” brand new religious justifications for flying around with the Grace of George, the Blessing of Bob and the Brandy Engines into foreign lands.

Flying Castles allows civilizations and their Gods new tentacles of religious outreach. Off they went, doing what Gods do – grow from medium-sized Gods into big Gods.

One day, followers of Brandy, Bob and George met followers of Joe. Joe the Trade God required all followers hop on one foot for a minimum of three minutes before the two parties considered any deal secure for the pain in the calf shows Joe the believer’s passion. And Joe’s lawyers-slash-Paladins constructed a careful legal code around Joe’s foot hopping dictates. Pain, they wrote into their legal code, is necessary and just before coin exchanges hands. It says right there in the Holy Works of Joe as Delivered Upon the Great Kumquat that Thou Must Hop and Hop Thou Must. A minimum of three hops, the legal and religious scholars wrote, and that it shall be.

When Bob’s followers flew a castle over to Joe’s lands, disembarked, and attempted to sell fine Elven armor for enormous crates of nutmeg, neither understood the other’s religious dictates. They had misunderstandings. Hilarity ensued. A Paladin stomped off-screen swearing vengeance for Bob in George’s Name. The trade deal worked out with spinning, singing, dancing, and foot hopping. This appeased both Gods. But, the Bob clerics thought on their way to the next port of call:

That took too much time, effort, and profit margin. Wouldn’t it just be easier if the Joe followers were Bob followers?

The next visitor to the land of Joe was not a happy Flying Castle trade ship, but a Flying Castle decked out in stained glass and song. A Flying Castle converted to a Flying Cathedral with a judicious coat of paint and tapestries. And the Clerics offered the Kings and Queens who followed Joe a simple deal: convert to Bob, accept our laws and get 20% off all trade deals. It’s right here in the Scriptures – for Lo, those who follow Bob shall have a Discount, and it shall be applied Universally. And with Bob comes George, bringer of the Flying Castle and Brandy, bringer of its technology. Does Joe offer you 20% off all trade deals? And what do you mean, this 20% deal is in crayon. It’s ancient! From the ancestors!

We have flying portable churches. We’ve even landed one for you. Gratis.

And if we don’t accept, asked the Joe followers. Well… said the Bob followers, 20% off in perpetuity is a nice deal. And we have these Flying Castles.

For Kings who worshipped Joe but lacked Flying Castles, and who wanted a cut in the Flying Castle triangle trade already making his small, distant country wealthy as trade does, Bob was a great deal. And Bob was just like Joe, right? Except a bunch of legalize, a few tapestries and some weird things about widdershins. Joe was out. Bob was in. Clerics get their cathedral. Get the people changing their mind en masse, stat.

Conversion! Level up! Everyone is now on the same Gods/Legal/Trade page. Now both civilizations will be rich. Burn those rioting Joe worshippers at the stake as heretics. And the worship of Brandy, Bob, George and their whole Pantheon spreads worldwide.

But for Kings who already have Flying Castles or don’t care for this encroachment of Bob and his damned flying Clerics and really would rather the Bob worshippers follow Joe, they explored option #2…

Castles in the Sky: Battles and War

Wars are about resources. Those resources might be land, water, raw materials, ports, or taxation collected from important cities on highly traveled trade routes. They might be souls and minds who, once conquered and converted, stop paying tithe to God A and pay to God B, or convert in ideology from one political thought to another. But Wars are always about taking some resource away (land + ideology, say) from the other guy.

Theoretically, the Joe followers don’t much like the Bob followers any more and they take to the skies. War.

Civilizations possessing Flying Castle technology organize their Flying Castles into Naval-like flotillas for war-time use. They group classes of Flying Castles into Fleets, headed up by a Flagship, into enemy territory. Neither walls, nor mountain ranges, nor oceans stop them. Once the aggressor declares War, battle in inevitable. Nothing is as terrifying as fleet of armed and dangerous Flying Castles descending from the clouds above to open rains of fire and death on the people below.

Battleship Castles, the most terrifying Flying Castles in the Fleet, carry armaments of heavy bombs, long-range magical and mechanical-like cannon and flak for protection from possible attack around their tower and walled sides. Loopholes riddle castle bottoms for cannon and manually positioned slow-motion bombing raids. The Castles rain “death from above” on enemy cities and lands, dropping bombs on unprotected known targets from overhead to destroy enemy castles, weapons depots, barracks and fortresses.

The enemy, responding to the bombing of their cities, launch their own Flying Castle fleets. Castle on Castle aerial combat is the world’s slowest dogfight. The Castles cannot maneuver quickly through the air. They rely on Abjuration protection shields, well-placed magical cannon, flak, battle tactics and planning to either blow down the enemy’s castle towers or close for boarding actions. Legendary Flying Battleship Castle commanders master vertical Z-Axis maneuvers while protecting their weaker castle bottoms from open fire. They rise through clouds into position to rain death on their enemy Castles from above.

Some Flying Castles in the fleet operate as a Carrier. These carry aerial craft to support the Battleships with mid-air combat. Smaller craft, stored explicitly for the purpose of dog-fighting, launch from the Flying Castle platform towers. Some are Gnomish Mechanical inventions: Gnomish dirigibles designed for combat, mechanical wings giving flight, combat balloons, and light two-winged mechanical fliers. Some are pure magic from spells, items and the like. And a few Castles prefer trained flying animals and their riders for aerial dog-fighting although Rocs, Manticores, Wyverns, and Pegasii run into major food, space and risk limitations over long haul travel distances. Should a tiny gold dragon burp in mid-fight and the castle catches fire, that is the end of that Flying Castle as people and supplies inside burn.

Once a lucky flier fights through and lands on the enemy’s Castle, they defeat the defenders to reach the engines or wizards below. Should they turn off the engines, the castle will plummet to the ground and kill all aboard (unless there’s excitement with traversing the dim halls, getting back to the flying craft, and dramatically escaping the doomed castle at the last second while music swells). Sometimes, dropping Commanders prefer to drop the Castle for tactical purposes but Castle take-over is more common. An enemy’s castle is a fat prize and reusable by the friendly Navy. Also, crashed Castles tend to land on things people want.

City walls and ground troops are useless when a Flying Castle appears overhead. Walls – not even tall walls – stop or even slow down a Flying Castle. Ground troops are simply paralyzed by Flying Castle actions, unable to do anything while the Castle flies overhead until the fight turns morphs a ground action. Cities are not helpless, however. Cities repurpose their old City Wall towers for Gnomish and Magical cannons for firing ordinance from the ground at the Castles. They employ positioned defensive Abjuration spells. They build shields of magic above instead of relying on walls around their city.

However, the city’s best defense from a Flying Castle are their own flying troops. While a Flying Castle has challenges with space, food, and fire hazards from carrying trained flying animals designed for aerial combat, a city has plenty of space. Well defended cities maintain flight troops drilled and trained for Flying Castle aerial dog-fighting combat. And should a city’s flying troops manage a successful boarding action, kill the defenders of a Flying Castle, take the wizard hostage, and take the Castle for themselves, a City finds itself in sudden possession of its own gun and turret platform to open up on the opposing side. But such a thing requires Great Heroics.

Another class of Flying Castle is the Transport. They disgorge castle-loads of troops on the ground via Gnomish and magic machinery. A city, hopefully, has ground troops left alive after the bombing action and aerial combat. The final stage of battle turns into urban combat – street to street, house to house, as troops land on roofs and try to take the city from above.

If the Flying Castles are victorious and the winning side wishes to keep the city, a Battleship lands outside the city walls, crushing valuable farmland. It becomes a towering oppressive symbol of victory and triumph. Occupying troops take up residence in the city. The military force claims the City as their own. If not, the military leaves an occupying force behind and flies off to wreck the next enemy city on its plan.

If the Flying Castles lose, the city still loses. The city is free but enormous dead smoking ruins litter the surrounding land.

Fleets of Battleships, Carriers and Transports are enormous expenses to their host country. Losing one to an enemy is a significant monetary loss. Typically, whomever starts with the biggest Navy and keeps up with the running cost of replacement battle over battle wins. But scrappy cities with their elite flying troops have, historically, put a serious dent into a Flying Naval Action when they have come to town. Don’t count some heroes on Dragons out simply because they don’t have enormous stone walls.

At the end of the War, when enough dead castles smoke and cities burn, the two sides sign a treaty (by some will of Bob and/or Joe). Someone walks off with the others’ resources. They draw new boundaries. Perhaps they nail a new God to the native’s feet. And if one country is overwhelmingly successful in War, that country’s ruler seriously looks at the map and considers expanding the Bob and money horizons.

Castles in the Sky: Conquest and Empire

Civilization B worships Paul the Trade God and not Bob. They lack Flying Castle technology. They have not developed high altitude magical cannons, bombs, Gnomish armed War Dirigibles, or flying dragon corps. But what they do have is nutmeg. Civilization A don’t have nutmeg.

Civilization A wants nutmeg.

There’s no reason for Civilization A not to wrest the nutmeg trees from Civilization B. And take from them they did, by the ends of cannons and the power of flying troops. Then, Civilization A sent back the nutmeg home for sale in their local markets as a global nutmeg monopoly. The castle, of course, stayed, landed permanently on the nutmeg tree island’s furthest edge as a local fort and trade point. Civilization A imposed the belief and legal strictures of Bob on the locals. The Flying Castle’s sheer might washes away legal codes the locals had over life, death and trade. More land, resources, and people taken for the glory of Civilization A.

Civilization A does this again. And again. And again.

Flying Castles are the engines of Empire. Once they pacify a land through a War action – one, and hopefully no more than one major set piece battle – the castles double as forts, barracks and, in the case of the Flagships, useful government buildings. They land and Instant Imperialism. Castles impose, to give a right of settlement, and to keep the locals from rising up in rebellion. They are the manifestations of raw mail-fisted power. Every time a local looks up on the horizon, the Castle looms, an affirmation of the power of conquerors.

Trade Flying Castles with enormous holds made for transport feeds resources from the conquered back into the Empire. These once expensive and now impossibly cheap resources are universally saleable and finished goods. The ravenous Empire population cannot get enough nutmeg, or mace, or pepper, or silk, or cloth, or Elven medications, or rare drugs, or whatever the conquered once made. The Empire taxes the imports and sales. The Empire becomes rich.

With its riches, the Empire builds more Flying Castles. With more Flying Castles, they win more Wars, they take more land, and they spread more Word of Bob. Bob melds with and consumes other Gods. More money feeds back into the Empire. The engine chugs along. Sure, the the crashed hulks of dead Flying Castles litter the ground from the random uprising, but this is the price one pays for peace.

But it is not all bad. With the horrors of conquest and empire comes the infrastructure builders to make it the world comfortable for the conquering. Civilization A builds roads and dams. They improve housing. They bring in their magical technology. Being part of the Empire is great! Too bad the nutmeg trees are gone and the locals who used to tend them, dead, but we have universal and global peace and prosperity.

Flying Castles hover along the Empire borders and above rebellion hot spots. Other Flying Castles refresh ground troops and government officials on a known schedule. Trade ships reach the far-flung corners of the Empire. The Empire annexes scrappy stand alone civilizations and slowly melts them into the new Empire. Gods mirror their host civilizations and, before long, Pantheons which once stood alone turn into one, giant Pantheon with Flight and Trade at its heart. Money good! Flight good! Technology good! Emperor good!

Civilization A turns into Empire A.

Being a citizen of the Empire is a pretty good deal. There’s a Navy to aspire to. There’s an Army of Elite Flying Troops. The Empire has money to spend on arts, literature, music, and magic. Life in the Empire is comfortable and the goods of the world are for sale. No one really wants or needs for anything. Too bad about Joe worshippers and other Civilizations. These things happen.

1000 years pass.

And then, we kick off our D&D campaign with the End of the Flying Castle Empire.


Worlds are more than just magic spells and some weapons – building a cohesive world means considering how people talk, trade, give each other ideas, and fight. This was a thought experiment (which needs some polishing) on building a world using money and military power as core motivation for all actors involved. “Castle in the Sky” is a rough outline expansion for a possible campaign world involving Flying Castles.

Nothing here is set in stone. It’s all available for ready theft.

Some ways to “JRPG” these core ideas up:

  • Start the Empire the Flying Castles made and let it crumble. Evil invaders on the ground and in the air chip at the edges of the Empire. The old Emperor dies and no one takes his place. Allow the world to end and let PCs dig into the sordid history of the Empire and decide for themselves if they wish to save it or let it fail for a new world. As the Empire fails, regions pull away under strong Generals and fight ala the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe stage a Red Cliff-like battle but aerial. Inject politics, might and power. Perhaps lose the secrets to the Vox Levitate Spell – No one knows how to make new Flying Castles at the end of Empire and the castles left operating are all in the world.
  • Run a game of Flying Castle Piracy and Smuggling. How one smuggles with a Flying Castle is an exercise up to the reader (they are not subtle – fly casually) but stealing and attacking other Flying Castles while flying a Jolly Roger is nothing but fun. Remember: piracy and smuggling is all about goods the Empire is trying to keep out, and the PCs are trying to get in for a big payday. What does the Empire not want in its borders? People? Drugs? Technology? And it’s not piracy, it’s a fight for Freedom! Freedom from the Empire in a stolen Flying Castle!
  • Run a Naval Star Trek like campaign. Build a set of stable Empires – for example, the Human Empire, the Gnomish Empire and the Dark Elven Empire. Have the Dark Elven Empire run their ships off captured and enslaved Mamluk-like wizards for extra evil and PC background fodder. Keep a number of smaller countries around so PCs can have easily reached “place of the week” to adventure. Have the party all take up officer positions operating their Flying Castle, have them interact with other Flying Castles, fight major airborne threats (big dragons), and embroil them in Dark Elven Empire politics. Ensure to stage at least one Wrath of Khan-like space battle in the magical nebula-like cloud.
  • Run a dog-fight based war backdrop game. Add Soldier in a Flying Squadron to the possible backgrounds for “Soldier.” The entire play group is connected in some way to a flying squadron – all PC squadron members, some PC squadron members and some friends, the PCs are fleeing the squadron, the PCs are disgraced from their squadron and need to redeem themselves, etc. Flying skills and access to a flying mount easily gets the players involved in the action, especially if war and conquest for money/resources/Gods/ideology is the backdrop for the game. Have them be stationed at a city so they have a home base with the option to go off with a Flying Castle to adventure in other places of the world.
  • Start with a standard JRPG “the bad guy destroyed my peaceful peasant village in some War/Conquest.” Spend the game trying to destroy the bad guy and his Empire of Flying Castles. Go through adventures, eventually have the party take a Flying Castle for themselves and fight the Big Bad on a Flying Castle Flagship Battleship tower. Escape at the last moment as the castle slowly crashes to the ground in flames.
  • Decide that the world has lost dragons, and let the players find dragons. Let them train them, grow them, and then eventually go to war with the crumbling and weak Empire ala Game of Thrones.
  • All Gnomes all the time! Because Gnomes.

Because big trade missions and Naval battles feel much more Age of Sail than Medieval, the world is ripe for magical clockwork and steampunk. Swap out regular magic spells and magical devices for Gnomish ingenuity. For example:

  • A steampunk Gnomish contraption with a huge copper bell which casts Sending for intra-Flying Castle communication and coordination;
  • Enormous steam-powered wings for flight instead of the spell Fly;
  • A crazy looking Bombard that sprays Cone of Cold instead of a wizard doing the same thing.

The world of Flying Castles hangs together fine with just straight up D&D-style magic, creatures from the Monster Manual, and an acceptance that a Flying Castle can both trade with you and bomb the hell out of your capital city. Gnomes may or may not make exploding engines. The lust for nutmeg combined with superior warfare may or may not power Empire.

Remember: there is no bigger and better expression of absolute power than a fleet of armed and armored Flying Castles hovering over your home. Just think about that, think about that very hard, before allowing a group of Murder Hobos take one over and fly off into the sunset.

Free Trader

Free Traders live and work on a starship, traveling to little-known planets to find exotic goods to trade. The crews generally own little more than their own starship, have no home except onboard, and experience a hand-to-mouth existence. The opposite is the traders who work for the huge megacorporation trading companies, living as drab little cogs in a drab corporate machine. The corporations have all the choice trade worlds to themselves, while the free traders have to fight over the scraps or do dangerous and financially risky explorations into unknown space. The corporations are also fond of perpetrating criminal acts on free traders including trade poaching, bankrupting free traders through loss leading, piracy, and out-and-out murder. An individual free trader ship can do little to defend itself from a megacorporation more powerful than most nations.

Term "Free Trader" was invented by Andre Norton.

As I previously mentioned there is a long history of SF novels about interstellar free traders eking out a marginal existence on the fringes of the huge trader corporations, from Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels to the Space Angel series by John Maddox Roberts.

A closely related concept is the interplanetary peddler, hopping from tiny settlement to tiny settlement like futuristic Yankee traders. They will supply vital equipment and little luxuries to people living in planetary pioneer colonies, space habitats, and Ma-and-Pa asteroid mines. Examples include Tinker by Jerry Pournelle and The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein.

FREE TRADERS. Interstellar travelling merchants who operate with great independence, owing no allegiance to a particular PLANET or EMPIRE. They are frequently encountered, and are generally a rather swaggering, pugnacious, buccaneering lot. They know their way around, and their trade ships are often well-armed, which can make them a factor to be reckoned with in SPACE WARFARE. Free Traders seem to be a mainstay of the interstellar ECONOMY. Some of them may eventually form an active TRADE FEDERATION.

     You get the idea that a fair amount of their TRADE might involve smuggling. This could be a tricky proposition, since landing on a planet is not like running a boat up on a beach, and SCAN equipment should pick up any space vehicle making a landing. On the other hand, a well-placed bribe to the operators will get you past any Scan technology.

     Some Free Traders are rather like Gypsies, footloose-seeming to outsiders but constrained among themselves by a clannish society, with elaborate social rules on things like who can marry whom. These Free Traders are probably less likely to found a Trade Federation, but their culture need not preclude them from smuggling.

From FREE TRADER entry in The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy

Never lose sight of the fact that a Free Trader starship is not making any money while it is sitting on a planet or space station. The money comes by transporting cargo. Therefore the longer the ship sits on its butt while the cargo-master frantically tries to scrounge some cargo, the more money is being wasted. Even worse, spaceports charge berthing fees by the day.

Free Traders make money by two methods: Speculative Trade and Cargo Transport.

Speculative Trade is an attempt to make money from arbitrage, that is buying a cargo where it is inexpensive, transporting it to a planet where the cargo is expensive, selling it, and pocketing the profits. It is a big help if the Free Trader has a monopoly on a cargo, such as exclusive rights to the highly prized Zoran gemstones of the planet Lorgal. If the Free Trader guesses wrong, and the cargo is worthless on the destination planet, the traders have to absorb the financial loss themselves.

Cargo Transport makes money the same way as an 18-wheeler trucker. The free trader does not buy a cargo. Instead a client hires the trader to transport the client's cargo to a specified destination by a certain time, with the cargo intact. Traders who violate any part of the contract will not be paid.


Free Trader Merchant Spacecraft
The sine qua non of a Free Trader. A Free Trader without a ship is just a spaceport bum. These come from shipyards and used spacecraft salesmen.
In case the free traders cannot afford to purchase their ship outright, they will need a loan. The traders have to keep up with their mortgage payments or the bank will sic their repo men on them. Spaceport will host branches of banks and other financial institutions. Some will be affiliated with spacecraft building firms.
Traders need trade goods.
  • Prosperous traders will own a trading post or factory with exclusive rights to some valuable trade good on a planet.
  • Slighly less prosperous traders will just have the rights to the planet, and will have an arrangement with the natives to visit according to a schedule.
  • Even less prosperous traders will just have right to visit somebody else's trading post and pay through the nose for their valuable trade good.
  • Even lower are traders who scrounge around at a spaceport to find odd cargos they can trade or purchase, crumbs left over from the trade ships belonging to megacorporations.
  • And at the bottom are the traders who depend upon investors or ship brokers to hire the Free Trader to be a mere blue-collar cargo hauling service.
Cargo brokers are in the business of connecting cargo buyers with cargo sellers. Ship brokers are in the business of connecting owners of cargo transport spacecraft and charterers who have cargo which needs transporting. The brokers collect a commission on the sale. Technically the smugglers and black marketeers in Star-town are brokers as well, just not with offices and charging high commissions in return for not asking any embarrassing questions.
Cargo Insurance
If the crew purchases the cargo themselves cargo insurance is not strictly necessary. In most cases anything that prevents the cargo from being delivered will also ensure that the crew is never seen alive again. But if the cargo has been bought by outside investors, they will insist upon underwriters providing insurance. The investors do not give a rat's hinie about the free traders, the investers are going to be safe on their planet but they want to be equally safe from the risk of losing their investment money.
Here are some sample free trader crews from Andre Norton and John Maddox Roberts. Replacement crew members can be found in hiring halls. This can range from an internet bulletin board to a large complex including interview offices and inexpensive (or free) hostels for crew members down on their luck. They are generally located in spaceports. Outfitters sell crew uniforms and other crew gear.
Consumables and Ship Stores
Life support consumables will be needed for the trip: breathing mix, food, and water. Spare parts, hydroponic seeds, medical supplies, carniculture starters, ship's cats, items for the slop chest, and anything else a spacecraft needs for a mission. These items are found in a spaceport chandlery.
Maintenance and Refurbishment
Heavily bureaucratic spaceports will require ships to have regular spaceworthiness inspections and scheduled maintenance. Other spaceports don't care, it's your look-out to ensure your ship doesn't break down and kill you all in the big dark. Small repairs can be done en-route by the chief engineer. Major repairs will require a spaceport shipyard.
Fuel and Propellant
Fuel and propellant for the propulsion system, fuel for the power plant if different from the propulsion. Spaceports generally have fueling services.
Spaceports charge fees. These are numerous enough to make the ship's husband's hair turn prematurely white. Entry fees, berthing fees, cargo tariffs, longshoreman fees, the list goes on and on. And power services if you plug your ship into the spaceports power grid to save wear and tear on your ship's power plant. Not to mention septic tank services.
Landing Field
Civilized areas have actual spaceports with real landing fields. Uncivilized areas range from a level patch of dirt adjacent to a trading post or factory down to uneven wilderness on an unexplored planet. Spaceports also have nice things like emergency gear and hospitals if your ship crashes or topples over.
Sometimes the free trader will have to rent storage space for their cargo from the spaceport warehouse district.

     Those who do venture ever into the unknown—the First-in Scouts of Survey, the explorers, and not the least, the Free Traders who pluck a living from the fringes of the galaxy—to these it is a commonplace thing to discover that the legends and fantasies of one planet may be lightsome or grim truth on another world. For each new planet-fall brings its own mysteries and discoveries…
     …First-in Scouts, from their unending quest for new worlds and systems, turn in many weird and strange reports to Survey. But even the planets opened to human contact by their efforts can yield hidden secrets, after they have been pronounced favorable ports for wandering ships, or even for pioneer settlements.
     The Free Traders who exist upon cross trade, having no fat plums to sustain them as do the Combines (Trade Megacorporations) of the inner planets (inner planets have been settled longer, and their money is older) with their monopolies, face now and again things that even Survey does not know…
     …Over the years the Free Traders, because of their way of life, have become almost a separate race in the galaxy. They own no one world home, nor do some ships possess a home port, but wander always. So it is that among us the ship itself is our only planet, and we look upon all without its shell as alien. Although not in this sense are we xenophobic, for it is part of our nature that we have a strong bent toward exploration and acceptance of the outer.
     Now we are born to the trade, for families live within the larger ships, it being decided long since that such was better for us than casual and transitory connections in ports which might lead to a man's losing his ship. The big space-borne ports are small cities in themselves, each operating as a central mart for a sector where large deals are carried out, where those who have a mate and children may enjoy a kind of home life between voyages.
     But the Lydis was a bachelor ship of the D class, intended for risky rim trading where only men without ties would venture. And I, Krip Vorlund, was well content to so set my feet on the ladder of trade. For my father had not returned from his last voyage years back. And my mother, after the custom of the Traders, had married again within two years and followed her new mate elsewhere. So I had no one to speak up for me at the time of assignment…

     …We had made two good voyages before we landed on Yiktor, and undoubtedly we felt that we were perhaps better than we were. However, caution is never forgotten on a Free Trader. After we planeted, before we opened hatches, Foss had us all in to listen to the guide tape carrying all the warnings for this world.
     The only port, such as it was—for this was truly a frontier world—lay outside Yrjar, a city as far as Yiktor knew cities, in the middle of a large northern land mass. We had timed our arrival carefully for the great trade fair, a meeting of merchants and populace from all over the entire planet, held at two-planet-years intervals at the end of the fall harvest season…

     …The government of Yiktor was at the feudal stage.…Thus the existing balance of power was a delicate thing. This meant for us Traders brain lock, weapon lock, nuisances though they were and much as we disliked them.
     Far back in Free Trading, for their own protection against the power of the Patrol and the wrath of Control, the Traders themselves had realized the necessity of these two safeguards on primitive planets. Certain technical information was not an item to be traded, no matter how high the inducement. Arms from off-world, or the knowledge of their manufacture, were set behind a barrier of No Sale. When we planeted on such a world, all weapons other than belt stunners were put into a lock stass which would not be released until the ship rose from that earth. We also passed a brain lock inhibiting any such information being won from us. This might seem to make us unarmed prey for any ambitious lord who might wish to wring us hard for such facts. But the law of the fair gave us complete immunity from danger—as long as we stayed within the limits set by the priests on the first day.

     For following almost universal galactic custom, one which appeared to be spontaneous and native to every world where such gatherings had existed for ages, the fair ground was both neutral territory and sanctuary. Deadly enemies could meet there and neither dared put hand to weapon. A crime could be committed elsewhere and, if the criminal reached the fair and was law-abiding therein, he was safe from pursuit or punishment as long as the fair continued. The gathering had its own laws and police, and any crime committed within was given speedy punishment. So that this meeting place was also a site for the cautious sounding out between lords for the settlement of feuds, and perhaps the making of new alliances. The penalty for any man breaking the peace of the fair was outlawry—the same as a sentence of death, but perhaps, in its way, more torturous and lingering for the criminal.
     This much we all knew, though we sat in patience as the guide tape told it over again. For on a Trader (starship) one does not ever push aside any briefing as unnecessary or time-wasting. Then Foss launched once more into the apportioning of planetside duties. These varied in rotation among us from world to world. There was always a guard for the ship—but the rest of us could explore in pairs in our free time. From the morning gong until midafternoon we would man our own booth for meeting with native merchants.

     As is true on all Free Traders, though the cargomaster handles the main cargo and the business of the ship at large, each member of the crew is expected to develop some special interest or speciality, to keep his eyes open, and to suggest new products which might add to the general prosperity of the voyage. Thus we were encouraged to explore all such marts in pairs and to take an interest in local produce, sniffing out a need of the natives which we might in the future supply, or picking up some hitherto overlooked export.…
     …But the sprode would not provide a full cargo, and it was up to us to discover odds and ends to fill in. Guesses did not always pay off. There were times when what seemed a treasure turned out to be a worthless burden, eventually to be space-dumped. But gambles had done so well in the past that we were certain they would pay off again for all of us.
     Any Trader with a lucky choice behind him had a better chance for advancement, with hopes for not too long a time before he could ask for an owner's contract and a higher share in a venture. It meant keeping your eyes open, having a good memory for things recorded on past voyage tapes, and probably having something which our elders called flair and which was a natural gift and nothing learned by study, no matter how doggedly pursued.
     Of course, there were always the easy, spectacular things—a new fabric, a gem stone—eye catchers. But these were usually right out in the open. And the fair steerer made very sure that the cargomaster saw them at the first sighting when the big merchants met. On such sales as these depended perhaps all a planet's lure for off-world Traders, and they were publicly hawked.
     The others were "hiders," things you nosed out on spec, almost always an obscure product some native merchant had brought to the booths on spec himself—small items which could be made into luxury trade for off-world, light, easy to transport, to sell for perhaps a thousand times cost price to the dilettanti of the crowded inner planets, who were always in search of something new with which to impress their neighbors.
     Foss had had a storied success on his second voyage with the Ispan carpets, masterpieces of weaving and color which could be folded into a package no longer than a man's arm, yet shaken out in silken splendor to cover a great-room floor, wearing well, with a flow of shade into shade which delighted and soothed the eyes. My immediate superior, Lidj, was responsible for the Crantax dalho discovery. So it was that a very insignificant-appearing, shriveled black fruit had now become an industry which made the League a goodly number of credits, put Lidj on secondary contract, and benefited a quarter of a struggling pioneer planet. One could not hope for such breaks at the start of course—though I think that deep down inside all of us apprentices did—but there were smaller triumphs to bring a commendation for one's E record. …

     …We were the only Free Trader in port, though there was a licensed ship under Combine registry, carrying, by contract only, specified cargo which we did not dispute. This was one time when there was truce between off-worlders and no need for sharp maneuvering, our captains and cargomasters sharing the high seats of the senior merchants in amicability. The rest of us lesser fry were not so comfortably housed. We rated on a level with their second guildsmen and by rights would have had to stand in the outer aisles, save that we each bore, with a great deal of show, counting boards. These served the double duty of getting us inside with our officers, and impressing the native population that off-worlders were rather stupid and needed such aids for reckoning—always a beginning move in shrewd bargaining. We therefore squatted at the foot of the high-seat platform and took ostentatious notes of all the exhibits displayed and praised in the offering. …
     …Usually Free Traders and Combine men do not mix. There was too much trouble in the past history we share, though nowadays things are better policed than they used to be. The League (alliance of free traders to counter the megacorporations) has a weighty hand and the Combine leaders no longer try to elbow out a Trader who can call upon such support. In the old days a one-ship Trader had no hope of fighting back. But the feelings and memories stemming from those times still kept us apart, so I was no more cordial than mere civility when I answered. …

     …Among our own kind Griss is a gambler, but that is another activity against which we are inhibited in an alien port. It can lead, as drinking, drugging, and eyeing the daughters of strangers, to trouble which would endanger the ship. Thus the desires for such amusements are blocked for us temporarily, and in our sober moments we agree that is wisdom. …

(ed note: The protagonist is involved in a local fracas. But free traders crew on a planet always wear live body-worn video cameras for protection)

     …One can hope for the best, but must be prepared to face the worst, so accepting ship restrict was now my portion and logically I had no quarrel with it. I was lucky, I supposed, that Captain Foss did not add to this relatively minor punishment a black check on my E record. Some commanders would have. I had the persona tape we all carried in our belts to give the true account of the fracas in the beast dealer's tent. And, to my credit, my hostile move there had been made in defense of a native of Yiktor, not merely to save my own skin. …

     …But there was little time for dreaming over puzzles, for two of the (planetary native) high merchants from the north swept into the booth as the boy departed. They were not dealers in sprode, but offered other wares to make up our light cargo, small luxury items which could be packed in the ship's treasure room and so realize good return for small bulk. Captain Foss greeted them, they being his own customers, enticed here not by our regular cargo but our own light wares. These were the true aristocrats of the merchant class, men who had founded their fortunes securely and now speculated in things to pull wealth from the belt purses of the high nobility.

From MOON OF THREE RINGS by Andre Norton (1966)

     Free Traders, born to space and the freedom of the star-ways as are all our kind. We have been rovers for so long that we have perhaps mutated into a new breed of humankind. Nothing to us, these planet intrigues—not unless we were entrapped in them. And that did not happen often. Experience, a grim teacher, had made us very wary of the politics of the planet-born
     …But on many worlds the gods are strong and their voices, the priests, are considered infallible, above even the temporal rulers. So that Traders walk softly and cautiously on any world where there are many temples and such a priesthood
     …It was the lesser bits, the crumbs, which were so offered. The bulk of the best was used to adorn the temples. But those were enough to make the trip worthwhile for my people, if not for the great companies and combines. Our cargo space was strictly limited; we lived on the fringe of the trade of the galaxy, picking up those items too small to entice the bigger dealers.

     So trade with Thoth had become routine. But ship time is not planet time. Between one visit and the next there may be a vast change on any world, political or even physical. And when the Lydis had set down this time, she had found boiling around her the beginnings of chaos, unless there came some sharp change. Government, religion, do not exist in a vacuum. Here government and religion—which had always had a firm alliance—were together under fire.
     A half year earlier there had arisen in the mountain country to the east of Kartum a new prophet. There had been such before, but somehow the temples had managed either to discredit them or to absorb their teachings without undue trouble. This time the priesthood found itself on the defensive. And, its complacency well established by years of untroubled rule, it handled the initial difficulty clumsily.
     As sometimes happens, one mistake led to a greater, until now the government at Kartum was virtually in a state of siege. With the church under pressure, the temporal powers scented independence. The well-established nobility was loyal to the temple. After all, their affairs were so intertwined that they could not easily withdraw their support. But there are always have-nots wanting to be haves—lesser nobility and members of old families who resent not having more. And some of these made common cause with the rebels…
     …Now there was a first-class civil war in progress. And, as far as we were able to learn, the government was shaky. Which was the reason for this secret meeting here in the house of a local lordling. The Lydis had come in with a cargo now of little or no value. And while a Free Trader may make an unpaying voyage once, a second such can put the ship in debt to the League.
     To be without a ship is death for my kind. We know no other life—planetside existence is prison. And even if we could scrape a berth on another Trader, that would mean starting from the bottom once again, with little hope of ever climbing to freedom again. It would perhaps not be so hard on junior members of the crew, such as myself, who was only assistant cargomaster. But we had had to fight for even our lowly berths. As for Captain Foss, the other officers—it would mean total defeat.
     Thus, though we had learned of the upsetting state of affairs within a half hour after landing, we did not space again. As long as there was the least hope of turning the voyage to some account we remained finned down, even though we were sure there was presently no market for pulmn. As a matter of routine, Foss and Lidj had contacted the temple. But instead of our arranging an open meeting with a supply priest, they had summoned us here.
     So great was their need that they wasted no time in formal greeting but came directly to the point. For it seemed that after all we did have something to sell—safety. Not for the men who met us, nor even for their superiors, but for the cream of the planet's treasure, which could be loaded on board the Lydis and sent to protective custody elsewhere…
     …When Captain Foss asked why they did not use their own ore-transport ships for the purpose (not that he was averse to the chance to make this trip pay), they had a quick answer. First, the ore ships were mainly robo-controlled, not prepared to carry a crew of more than one or two techs on board. They could not risk sending the treasure in such, when tinkering with the controls might lose it forever. Secondly, the Lydis, being a Free Trader, could be trusted. For such was the Traders' reputation that all knew, once under contract, we held by our word. To void such a bond was unthinkable. The few, very few, times it had happened, the League itself had meted out such punishment as we did not care to remember.
     Therefore, they said, if we took contract they knew that their cargo would be delivered. And not only one such cargo, but they would have at least two, maybe more. If the rebels did not invest the city (as they now threatened) too soon, the priests would continue to send off their hoard as long as they could. But the cream of it all would be on the first trip. And they would pay—which was the subject of the present meeting.
     Not that we were having any wrangling. But no man becomes a Trader without a very shrewd idea of how to judge his wares or services. Thus to outbargain one of us was virtually impossible. And, too, this was a seller's market, and we had a monopoly on what we had to offer…

     …"Let it be so contracted." As cargomaster he had the final decision. For in such matters he could overrule even the captain. Trade was his duty, first and always

     …The mob was not giving up entirely. But the ranks of the loyal soldiery were being constantly augmented from the city, pushing out and out, the mob retreating sullenly before them.
     "This is it!" Lidj made for the ship ladder. "I'd say they are going to run the cargo out now. Do we open to load?" Under normal circumstances the loading of the ship was his (Cargomaster) department. But with the safety of the Lydis perhaps at stake, that decision passed automatically to (Captain) Foss.
     "Cover the hatches with stunners; open the upper first. Until we see how well they manage—" was the captain's answer.
     Minutes later we stood within the upper hatch. It was open and I had an unpleasantly naked feeling as I waited at my duty post, my calculator fastened to my wrist instead of lying in the palm of my hand, leaving me free to use my weapon. This time I had that set on narrow beam. Griss Sharvan, second engineer, pressed into guard service and facing me on the other side of the cargo opening, kept his ready on high-energy spray.…
     …Thus began the loading of the Lydis. The priests were willing but awkward workers. So I swung out and down with the crane to help below, trying not to think of the possibility of a lucky shot from the mob. For there was the crackle of firing now coming from a distance.
     Up and down, in with the crane ropes, up—down. We had to use great care, for though all were well muffled in wrappings, we knew that what we handled were irreplaceable treasures. The first truck, emptied, drew to one side. But the men who had manned it remained, the priests to help with the loading of the next, the guards spreading out as had the skirmishers from the gate. I continued to supervise the loading, at the same time listing the number of each piece swung aloft, reciting it into my recorder. Lidj by the hatch would be making a duplicate of my record, and together they would be officially sealed in the presence of the priests' representatives when all was aboard.
     …I shrugged and swung up to the hatch. There was a stowage robo at work there. My superior leaned against the wall just inside, reading the dial of his recorder. As I came in he pressed the "stop" button to seal off his list.
     "They won't take receipt," I reported. "They say that there is a High One coming to do that."
     Lidj grunted, so I went to see to the sealing of the holds. The large crate which had been the last was still in the claws of two robo haulers. And, strong as those were, it was not easily moved. I watched them center it in the smaller top hold, snap on the locks to keep it in position during flight. That was the last, and I could now slide the doors shut, imprint the seal which would protect the cargo until we planeted once more. Of course Lidj would be along later to add his thumb signature to mine, and only when the two of us released it could anything less than a destruct burner get it out.
     …Now from the gate came a small surface car which detoured around the kneeling priest in a very wide swing. And it approached the Lydis.
     "Our take-off authorization." Lidj climbed from his seat. "I'll go get it—the sooner we lift the better."…

(ed note: one of the items of cargo they have been contracted to transport to safety is The Throne, a forerunner artifact. Somehow it forces the ship to land on a barren planet.)

     … The captain studied the artifact warily. Then he came to the only decision a man conditioned as a Free Trader could make. The safety of the (starship) Lydis was above all else.
     "We unload—not just the Throne, all this. We cache it until we learn what's behind it all."
     I heard Lidj suck in his breath sharply. "To break contract—" he began, citing another part of the Traders' creed.
     "No contract holds that a cargo of danger must be transported, the more so when that danger was not made plain at the acceptance of the bargain. The Lydis has already been planeted through the agency of this—this treasure! We are only lucky that we are not now in a drifting derelict because of it. This must go out—speedily!"
     So, despite the dark, floodlights were strung, and once more the robos were put to work. This time they trundled to the hatches all those crates, boxes, and bales which had been so carefully stowed there on Thoth. Several of the robos were swung to the ground and there set to plowing through the dunes, piling the cargo within such shelter as a ridge of rock afforded. And there last of all was put the Throne of Qur, its glittering beauty uncovered, since they did not wait to crate it again.
     "Suppose"—Lidj stood checking off the pieces as the robos brought them along—"this is just what someone wants—that we dump it where it can be easily picked up?"
     "We have alarms rigged. Nothing can approach without triggering those. And then we can defend it."…

(ed note: two of the crew use the ship's flitter to try and reach the Patrol communication relay and call for help. Half-way there the flitter vanishes.)

     … As was customary among the Traders, the remaining members of the crew assembled to discuss the grim future, to come to an agreement as to what must be done. Because Free Traders are bound to their ships, owning no home world of earth and stone, water and air, they are more closely knit together than many clans. That they could abandon two of their number lost in the unknown was unthinkable. Yet to search on foot for them was a task defeated before begun. Thus caught between two needs, they were men entrapped. Shallard agreed that the Lydis might just be able to rise from her present site. But that she could again make a safe landing he doubted. All his delving into the engines did not make plain just what had hit her power, but important circuits were burned out. …

     …"It cannot be overlooked," he told them, "that we may have been pulled into a trap. Oh, I know that it is just on the edge of possibility that we were meant to fin down here on Sekhmet. On the other hand, how many cases of actual looting of ships in space are known? Such tales are more readily found on the fiction tapes, where the authors are not bound by the technical difficulties of such a maneuver. I think we can assume that the cargo is what led to sabotage. All right—who wants it? The rebels, that fanatic of a priest? Or some unknown party, who hopes to gather in loot worth more stellars than we could count in a year—if they could lift it from us and transport it out?
     "Once away from this system, it would be a matter of possession being nine-tenths of the law. Only here are the claims of the priesthood recognized as legal. You have heard of the Abna expedition, and the one that Harre Largo managed ten years back? They got in, found their treasure, got out again. The priests yelled themselves near black in the face over both, but the finds were legitimate, made by the men who ran the stuff out—they were not stolen.
     "Then there are the laws of salvage. Think about those carefully. Suppose the Lydis had crashed here. That would cancel our own contract. Such an accident would open up a neat loophole which would be easy to use. Anyone finding a wrecked ship on an unsettled world—"
     "That would only apply," cut in Captain Foss, "if all the crew were dead."

     …"Korde can do it, if it can be done. There is a Patrol asteroid station between here and Thoth. If he can beam a signal strong enough to reach either that or some cruise ship of theirs, then we're set."
     Patrol? Well, the Patrol is necessary. There must be some law and order even in space. And their men are always under orders to render assistance to any ship in distress. But it grated on our Free Trader pride to have to call for such help. We were far too used to our independence. I spun the case of a report tape between thumb and forefinger, guessing just how much this galled our captain.
     "One thing on the credit side," Lidj continued. "That find which your furred friend turned up out there. If there is a treasure cache here, the priests cannot claim it. But we can."
     He was once more staring at the wall. I did not have to mind-probe to know what occupied his thoughts. Such a find would not only render the Lydis famous, but perhaps lift us all to the status of contract men, with enough credits behind us to think of our own ships. Even more so since the find was made on a planet where exploration was not restricted, where more than one such could be turned up.…

     "Krip, do you remember how once, long ago it now seems, we spoke of treasure and you said that it could be many things on many worlds, but that each man had his own idea of what it was? Then you added that what would be precious to you was a ship of your own, that that was what your people considered true treasure. Suppose this cache, or another, were to yield enough to give you that. What would you do with such a ship—voyage, as does the Lydis, seeking profit wherever chance and trade call you?"
     She was right in that a ship was the Trader standard of treasure. Though it would take a sum beyond perhaps even the value of the cargo from Thoth to buy a ship for each member of the Lydis's crew. And all finds would be shared. But a ship of my own—

From EXILES OF THE STARS by Andre Norton (1971)

They had taken Moses Callahan's ship and turned it into paper.

A man lived on his ship. He breathed her air, ate and drank from her stores. Her bulkheads solid around him kept the uncaring vacuum outside where it belonged and her driving engines bent the very curvature of space to take him wherever he wanted to go.

But then he had to land. . . .

Suddenly all that breathing and eating became a life-support replenishment invoice. Those protecting bulkheads hid structural support members that had to be inspected and recertified by a licensed and commensurately expensive naval surveyor. Engines became fuel costs and a ten-thousand-hour service charge. Then there were berth fees, entry fees, value-added tax on cargo transactions, customs "courtesy" fees, outright bribes to the longshoremen's union—and Moses Callahan wound up sitting in the deepest corner of the Hybreasil inport bar complex, wondering whether to have another beer or have his good uniform cleaned and pressed before heading outport to try to unearth a cargo Celtic Crescent or Western Galactic might have overlooked.

     "It's got a few other little flaws," Moses said.
     Jakubowski frowned slightly. "Oh? I live here, friend. I'm allowed to bitch. What bothers a visitor like yourself?"
     "Celtic Crescent, for one," Moses said. "Western Galactic, for another."
     Jakubowski grinned. "Oh. Them. Don't forget Brendan Interstellar."

(ed note: Celtic Crescent, Western Galactic, and Brendan Interstellar are the huge trading megacorporations. Moses Callahan is a free trader.)

     "What about them?"
     "It was in the morning fax. Brendan's taking bids on a five-year compradore's license, with option to extend. I've got a bid in myself."
     "S**t. This used to be a nice little port of call for a fellow going his own way."
     Jakubowski shook his head. "Not anymore. Region's getting too big, too profitable. We're corporate-line territory now. Hell, you're only the third independent to call inport in the last six months, and I don't think either of the others would have got off the ground again if Mission House hadn't stepped in and found them cargoes."
     "Now that's worth knowing," Moses said. "Maybe I should pay a call on Mission House myself."
     "I doubt it would help. That was before Boadicea and Western Comet lifted out. Even Mission House can't find a cargo where there's none to be had. I think you're on your own, Captain, unless you want to put in for a Merchant Support Loan."
     "No, thank you. I'm carrying enough paper already."
     "Then you'll have to find a charter."

And it was to the ground floor of Government House that Moses Callahan came, to the offices of the Bureau of Shipping and Mariner's Hall: two small, aged rooms, all the space deemed necessary to attend to the shoreside end of the thread that linked the worlds.

The holograms in Mariner's Hall parted as he walked through them, looking for the roster of available pilots. Deck crew, engineers, stewards... the listings were thin, shot through with large gaps where blocks of names had been stricken off. The arrival of the major lines was having its effect. The pool of available independent spacers was draining rapidly as trained men and women anticipated the coming dearth of independent berths and lifted out in the first available spaces. The independents were fleeing Hybreasil. Sometime in the next year or so they would begin to cluster again, on some less prominent world farther out, and the cycle of development and supplantation would recommence, closer to the expanding frontier.

From THE SHATTERED STARS by Richard S. McEnroe (1984)

Dane shouldered his bag into the lift which swept him up to ground level and out into the sunshine of a baking south-western summer day. He lingered on the concrete apron which rimmed this side of the take-off Field, looking out over its pitted and blasted surface at the rows of cradles which held those ships now readying for flight. He had scant attention for the stubby inter-planetary traders, the Martian and Asteroid lines, the dull dark ships which ploughed out to Saturn's and Jupiter's moons. What he wanted lay beyond — the star ships — their sleek sides newly sprayed against dust friction, the soil of strange worlds perhaps still clinging to their standing fins.

From THE SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

Ander Nordholm had been a government man. He and his daughter were classed as outsiders and strangers by the colony group, much as were the other representatives of law from off-world—the Ranger Franklyn, Post Officer Kaus and his two guards, the medical officer and his wife. But every colony had to have an education officer. In the past too many frontier-world settlements had split away from the Confederation, following sometimes weird and dangerous paths of development when fanatics took control, warped education, and cut off communications with other worlds.

Yes, the Nordholms had expected a period of adjustment, of even semi-ostracization since this was a Believer colony. But her father had been winning them over—he had! Charis could not have deceived herself about that. Why, she had been invited to one of the women’s “mend” parties. Or had it been a blind even then?

But this—this would never have happened if it had not been for the white death! Charis’s breath came now in a real sob. There were so many shadows of fear on a newly opened planet. No safeguard could keep them all from striking at the fragile life of a newly planted colony. And here had been waiting a death no one could see, could meet with blaster or hunting knife or even the medical knowledge her species had been able to amass during centuries of space travel, experimentation, and information acquired across the galaxy.

And in its striking, the disease had favored the fanatical prejudices of the colonists. For it struck first the resented government men. The ranger, the port captain and his men, her father—Charis’s fist was at her mouth, and she bit hard upon her knuckles. Then it struck the medic—always the men. Later the colonists—oddly enough, those who had been most friendly with the government party—and only the men and boys in those families.

She could return; or she could remain here until the hunt found her—to take her as a slave down to the foul nest they were fast making of the first human settlement on Demeter; or somehow she could reach the mountains and hide out like a wild thing until sooner or later some native peril would finish her.

Her safety depended upon what the settlers would decide. She had no means of concealing her back trail. In the morning it would be found. But whether their temper would be to follow her, or if they would shruggingly write her off to be finished by the wild, Charis could not guess. She was the one remaining symbol of all Tolskegg preached against—the liberal off-world mind, the “un-female,” as he called it. The wild, with every beast Ranger Franklyn had catalogued lined up ready to tear her, was far better than facing again the collection of cabins where Tolskegg now spouted his particular brand of poison, that poison, bred of closed minds, which her father had taught her early to fear. And Visma and her ilk had lapped that poison to grow fat and vigorous on it.

There was a spacer, a slim, scoured shape, pointing nose to sky, the heat of its braking fire making a steam mist about it. But this was no vision — it was real! A spacer had set down by the village!

Charis faced around toward the ship and waved vigorously, looking for the insignia which would make it Patrol or Scout.

There was none! It took a moment for that fact to make a conscious impression on her mind. Charis had been so sure that the proper markings would be there that she had almost deceived herself into believing that she sighted them. But the spacer bore no device at all. Her arm dropped to her side suddenly as she saw the ship as it really was.

This was not the clean-lined, well-kept spacer of any government service. The sides were space-dust cut, the general proportions somewhere between scout and freighter, with its condition decidedly less than carefully tended. It must be a Free Trader of the second class, maybe even a tramp — one of those plying a none-too-clean trade on the frontier worlds. And the chances were very poor that the commander or crew of such would be lawfully engaged here or would care at all about what happened to the representatives of government they were already aligned against in practice. Charis could hope for no help from such as these.

Charis had known some Free Traders. In fact, among that class of explorer-adventurer-merchant her father had had some good friends, men who carried with them a strong desire for knowledge, who had added immeasurably to the information concerning unknown worlds. But those were the aristocrats of their calling. There were others who were scavengers, pirates on occasion, raiders who took instead of bargained when the native traders of an alien race were too weak to stand against superior off-world weapons.

"It is simple, my friend." The trader's insolent tone to Tolskegg must have cut the colonist raw, yet he took it because he must. "You need labor. Your fields are not going to plow, plant, and reap themselves. All right, in freeze I have labor — good hands all of them. I had my pick; not one can't pull his weight, I promise you. There was a flare on Gonwall's sun, they had to evacuate to Sallam, and Sallam couldn't absorb the excess population. So we were allowed to recruit in the refugee camp. My cargo's prime males — sturdy, young, and all under indefinite contracts. The only trouble is, friend, what do you have to offer in return?

So that was it! Charis drew a deep breath and knew there was no use in appealing to this captain. If he had shipped desperate men on indefinite labor contracts, he was no better than a slaver, even though there was a small shadow of legality to his business.

"You present a problem." The captain spoke to her again. "There is no processing station here, and we cannot ship you out in freeze—"

Charis shivered. Most labor ships stacked their cargo in the freeze of suspended animation, thus saving room, supplies, all the needs of regular passengers. Space on board a trader ship was strictly limited.

And as her eyes adjusted she saw that they had indeed set down in a wasteland.

Sand, which was a uniform red outside the glassy slag left by the thruster blast, lapped out to the foot of a range of small hills, the outline of which shimmered in heat waves. There was no sign of any building, no look of a port, save for the countless slag scars which pecked and pitted the surface of the desert sand, evidence of many landings and take-offs.

There were ships — two, three, a fourth farther away. And all of them, Charis saw, were of the same type as the one she had just left, second- and third-class traders. This seemed to be a rendezvous for fringe merchants.

"This is our chance, the big one, the one every trader dreams of having someday—a permit on a newly opened world. Make this spin right and it means—" His voice trailed off, but Charis understood him.

Trading empires, fortunes, were made from just such chances. To get at the first trade of a new world was a dream of good luck. But she was still puzzled as to how Jagan had achieved the permit for Warlock. Surely one of the big Companies would have made contact with Survey and bid in the rights to establish the first post. Such plums were not for the fringe men. But it was hardly tactful under the circumstances to ask Jagan how he had accomplished the nigh to impossible.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)

Clan Ships

Sometimes space nomads live as free traders, families and communities living in large "clan-ships", developing a "trader culture." Each ship is a world, carrying the entire clan.

Clan ships tend to be faster-than-light starships, ones that are slower-than-light are more likely to be classified as generation ships. Clan ships are liable to be quite large, but if they are outrageously huge they are usually classified as World Ships.

Sometimes these nomad trader cultures become powerful enough to become nomad empires. Even more powerful is a Thalassocracy, where the nomad empire horde has an actual monopoly on trade since they control all access to space. If people living on planets want to engage in interstellar trade, they have to go through the thalassocrats. The leader of the thalassocrats is of course called the thalassiarch.

Examples include CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein, STAR WAYS aka THE PEREGRINE by Poul Anderson, the Cities in Flight novels of James Blish, MERCHANTER'S LUCK and FINITY'S END by C. J. Cherryh, RITE OF PASSAGE by Alexi Panshin, A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by Vernor Vinge, the rag-tag fugitive fleet from the destroyed 12 colonies of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

The crews of the starships are funny that way
When they're not on a deck they do not like things quiet
They'll turn first a glass then a whole tavern over
Get thrown in the lockup, confined to the field,
And then, in a rush of filled forms and paid prices,
They exit, all quickly, with nothing to say
Sestina: Midnight stations, Gurps Traveller Starports

In most Space Opera settings space travel is commonplace and routine, but in some settings there are people who spend almost their entire lives in space. These people were born and raised on a starship or space station and can't imagine living on a planet or natural satellite. Often they act as traders, with an extended family owning and operating a ship. Recently, with knowledge of the ill effects of extended periods in space, Spacers are increasingly portrayed as a genetically engineered subspecies that does not experience muscular and skeletal degeneration from zero-gravity, is immune to radiation, has prehensile toes, and so on. In softer settings, however, they may still be portrayed as normal humans who happen to live in space, perhaps thanks to Artificial Gravity. Even if they may be Transhuman, their main reason for living in space is usually cultural: they consider it their own place. Even if they visit planets occasionally, they do not feel particularly attached to them, and may even consider them unpleasant.

If a Fantasy Counterpart Culture, they may be comparable to Romani or other nomadic Earth-cultures. They often makes excellent engineers and pilots. They usually won't have any government beyond clan elders.

Compare Generation Ship, where multiple generations are born and live out their entire lives on board a slow-moving ship headed for a distant planet.

Space Nomads are a common subtrope.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


In science fiction, when a space-faring race has no planet/asteroid etc to call home, and lives solely in space craft, they may be space nomads. Note that to be a true example of this trope the people in question have to actually move around once in a while (ie: be nomadic). If they're just living on a space station that is, well, stationary, then it's not a true example of this trope. The craft where these people live may form part of a Space Navy or Standard SciFi Fleet, and/or may be huge Planet Spaceships which may in turn cause moments of That's No Moon! for characters in the story.

In real life, there are whole groups of "Sea Gypsies" such as the Bajau people, and so this trope can fit well if Space is an Ocean. The Space Nomads may be all that's left of the Precursors, in which case it's likely they suffered some sort of Götterdämmerung but obviously weren't fully wiped out. Space Nomads commonly appear in Space Operas. The Space Nomads may be running away from something, trying to reach their homeland or even a new home, so they need not intend to be nomadic forever, but they are still a whole group of people on a very long journey.

Subtrope of Space People.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


(ed note: our hero Thorby has been rescued by the Free Trader clan ship Sisu, in order to repay a debt owed to Thorby's guardian.)

      Third, he became dismally aware that he was being snubbed. People did not look at him, nor did they answer when he spoke; they walked right through him if he did not jump. The nearest he accomplished to social relations was with a female child, a toddler who regarded him with steady, grave eyes in answer to his overtures — until snatched up by a woman who did not even glance at Thorby.
     Thorby recognized the treatment; it was the way a noble treated one of Thorby’s caste. A noble could not see him, he did not exist — even a noble giving alms usually did so by handing it through a slave. Thorby had not been hurt by such treatment on Jubbul; that was natural, that was the way things had always been. It had made him neither lonely nor depressed; he had had plenty of warm company in his misery and had not known that it was misery.
     Food appeared eventually, served by a youngster who behaved as if he were placing a tray in an empty room. More food appeared later and the first tray was removed. Thorby almost managed to be noticed; he hung onto the first tray and spoke to the boy in Interlingua. He detected a flicker of understanding, but he was answered by one short word. The word was “Fraki!” and Thorby did not recognize it … but he could recognize the contempt with which it was uttered. A fraki is a small, shapeless, semi-saurian scavenger of Alpha Centaura Prime III, one of the first worlds populated by men. It is ugly, almost mindless, and has disgusting habits. Its flesh can be eaten only by a starving man. Its skin is unpleasant to touch and leaves a foul odor.
     But “fraki” means more than this. It means a groundhog, an earthcrawler, a dirt dweller, one who never goes into space, not of our tribe, not human, a goy, an auslander, a savage, beneath contempt. In Old Terran cultures almost every animal name has been used as an insult: pig, dog, sow, cow, shark, louse, skunk, worm — the list is endless. No such idiom carries more insult than “fraki.”
     Fortunately all Thorby got was the fact that the youngster did not care for him … which he knew.

     He was squatting in his bunkie, feeling a great aching loneliness for Pop and wishing that he had never left Jubbul, when someone scratched at his door. “May I come in?” a voice inquired in careful, badly accented Sargonese.
     “Come in!” Thorby answered eagerly and jumped up to open the door. He found himself facing a middle-aged woman with a pleasant face. “Welcome,” he said in Sargonese, and stood aside.
     “Do you prefer the door open or closed, ma’am?”
     “Eh? It doesn’t matter. Oh, perhaps you had better leave it open; these are bachelor quarters of the starboard moiety and I’m supposed to live in port purdah, with the unmarried females. But I’m allowed some of the privileges and immunities of … well, of a pet dog. I’m a tolerated ‘fraki.’ ” She spoke the last word with a wry smile. “Let me introduce myself. I’m not a trader; I’m an anthropologist they are allowing to travel with them. My name is Doctor Margaret Mader. Do you know what an anthropologist is?”
     “Uh, I am sorry, ma’am — Margaret.”
     “It’s simpler than it sounds. An anthropologist is a scientist who studies how people live together.”
     Thorby looked doubtful. “This is a science?”
     “Sometimes I wonder. Actually, Thorby, it is a complicated study, because the patterns that men work out to live together seem unlimited. There are only six things that all men have in common with all other men and not with animals — three of them part of our physical makeup, the way our bodies work, and three of them are learned. Everything else that a man does, or believes, all his customs and economic practices, vary enormously. Anthropologists study those variables. Do you understand variable’?”
     “Uh,” Thorby said doubtfully, “the x in an equation?”
     “Correct!” she agreed with delight. “We study the x’s in the human equations. That’s what I’m doing. I’m studying the way the Free Traders live. They have worked out possibly the oddest solutions to the difficult problem of how to be human and survive of any society in history. They are unique. Do you know how to open your work table?”
     “Good heavens, didn’t they show you anything?”
     “Well … there was a bed in here once. But I’ve lost it.”
     Doctor Mader muttered something, then said, “I might have known it. Thorby, I admire these Traders. I even like them. But they can be the most stiff-necked, self-centered, contrary, self-righteous, uncooperative — but I should not criticize our hosts. Here.” She reached out both hands, touched two spots on the wall and the disappearing bed swung down.
     “What’s that?” he asked at last.
     “That? Probably the microphone to the Chief Officer’s cabin. Or it may be a dummy with the real one hidden. But don’t worry; almost no one in this ship speaks System English and she isn’t one of the few. They talk their ‘secret language’ — only it isn’t secret; it’s just Finnish. Each Trader ship has its own language — one of the Terran tongues. And the culture has an over-all ‘secret’ language which is merely degenerate Church Latin — and at that they don’t use it; ‘Free Ships’ talk to each other in Interlingua.
     “Margaret … why won’t they speak to people?”
     “You’re the first person who’s spoken to me!”
     “Oh.” She looked distressed. “I should have realized it. You’ve been ignored.”
     “Well … they feed me.”
     “But they don’t talk with you. Oh, you poor dear! Thorby, they don’t speak to you because you are not ‘people.’ Nor am I.”
     “They don’t talk to you either?”
     “They do now. But it took direct orders from the Chief Officer and much patience on my part.” She frowned. “Thorby, every excessively clannish culture — and I know of none more clannish than this — every such culture has the same key word in its language … and the word is ‘people’ however they say it. It means themselves. ‘Me and my wife, son John and his wife, us four and no more’ — cutting off their group from all others and denying that others are even human. Have you heard the word ‘fraki’ yet?
     “Yes. I don’t know what it means.”
     “A fraki is just a harmless, rather repulsive little animal. But when they say it, it means ‘stranger.’
     “Uh, well, I guess I am a stranger.”
     “Yes, but it also means you can never be anything else. It means that you and I are subhuman breeds outside the law — their law.
     Thorby looked bleak. “Does that mean I have to stay in this room and never, ever talk to anybody?”

     He had just opened his bed for the sixth time when he was almost shocked out of the shoes he had dared to try on by an unholy racket. It was the ship’s alarm, calling all hands to General Quarters, and it was merely a drill, but Thorby did not know that. When he reswallowed his heart, he opened the door and looked out. People were running at breakneck speed.
     Shortly the corridors were empty. He went back into his bunkie, waited and tried to understand. Presently his sharp ears detected the absence of the soft sigh of the ventilation system. But there was nothing he could do about it. He should have mustered in the innermost compartment, along with children and other noncombatants, but he did not know.
     So he waited.
     The alarm rang again, in conjunction with a horn signal, and again there were running people in the passageways. Again it was repeated, until the crew had run through General Quarters, Hull Broach, Power Failure, Air Hazard, Radiation Hazard, and so forth — all the general drills of a taut ship. Once the lights went out and once for frightening moments Thorby experienced the bewildering sensation of free fall as the ship’s artificial field cutoff.
     After a long time of such inexplicable buffoonery he heard the soothing strains of recall and the ventilation system whispered back to normal.

     “Chief Officer, here’s the fraki.”
     “Thank you, Third Deck Master. You may go.”
     Thorby understood only the word “fraki.” He picked himself up and found himself in a room many times as large as his own. The most prominent thing in it was an imposing bed, but the small figure in the bed dominated the room. Only after he had looked at her did he notice that Captain Krausa stood silent on one side of the bed and that a woman perhaps the Captain’s age stood on the other.
     The woman in bed was shrunken with age but radiated authority. She was richly dressed — the scarf over her thin hair represented more money than Thorby had ever seen at one time — but Thorby noticed only her fierce, sunken eyes. She looked at him. “So! Oldest Son, I have much trouble believing it.” She spoke in Suomic.
     “My Mother, the message could not have been faked.”
     She sniffed.
     Captain Krausa went on with humble stubbornness, “Hear the message yourself. My Mother.” He turned to Thorby and said in Interlingua, “Repeat the message from your father.”
     Obediently, not understanding but enormously relieved to be in the presence of Pop’s friend, Thorby repeated the message by rote. The old woman heard him through, then turned to Captain Krausa. “What is this? He speaks our language! A fraki!”
     “No, My Mother, he understands not a word. That is Baslim’s voice.”
     She looked back at Thorby, spilled a stream of Suomic on him. He looked questioningly at Captain Krausa. She said, “Have him repeat it again.”
     The Captain gave the order; Thorby, confused but willing, did so. She lay silent after he had concluded while the other waited. Her face screwed up in anger and exasperation. At last she rasped, “Debts must be paid!
     “That was my thought, My Mother.”
     “But why should the draft be drawn on us?” she answered angrily.
     The Captain said nothing. She went on more quietly, “The message is authentic. I thought surely it must be faked. Had I known what you intended I would have forbidden it. But, Oldest Son, stupid as you are, you were right. And debts must be paid.” Her son continued to say nothing; she added angrily, “Well? Speak up! What coin do you propose to tender?”
     “I have been thinking. My Mother,” Krausa said slowly. “Baslim demands that we care for the boy only a limited time … until we can turn him over to a Hegemonic military vessel. How long will that be? A year, two years. But even that presents problems. However, we have a precedent — the fraki female. The Family has accepted her — oh, a little grumbling, but they are used to her now, even amused by her. If My Mother intervened for this lad in the same way —”
     “But, My Mother, we are obligated. Debts must —”
     Krausa shut up.
     She went on quietly, “Did you not listen to the wording of the burden Baslim placed on you? ‘ — succor and admonish him as if you were I.’ What was Baslim to this fraki?”
     “Why, he speaks of him as his adopted son. I thought —”
     “You didn’t think. If you take Baslim’s place, what does that make you? Is there more than one way to read the words?”
     Krausa looked troubled. The ancient went on, “(clan ship) Sisu pays debts in full. No half-measures, no short weights — in full. The fraki must be adopted … by you.”
     Krausa’s face was suddenly blank. The other woman, who had been moving around quietly with make-work, dropped a tray.
     The Captain said, “But, My Mother, what will the Family —”
     “I am the Family!” She turned suddenly to the other woman. “Oldest Son’s Wife, have all my senior daughters attend me.”
     “Yes, Husband’s Mother.” She curtsied and left.
     The Chief Officer looked grimly at the overhead, then almost smiled. “This is not all bad, Oldest Son. What will happen at the next Gathering of the People?
     “Why, we will be thanked.”
     “Thanks buy no cargo.” She licked her thin lips. “The People will be in debt to Sisu … and there will be a change in status of ships. We won’t suffer.
     Krausa smiled slowly. “You always were a shrewd one, My Mother.”

     Thorby was moved from his bunkie into a less luxurious larger room intended for four bachelors. His roommates were Fritz Krausa, who was his eldest unmarried foster brother and president of the starboard bachelor table, Chelan Krausa-Drotar, Thorby’s foster ortho-second-cousin by marriage, and Jeri Kingsolver, his foster nephew by his eldest married brother.
     It resulted in his learning Suomic rapidly. But the words he needed first were not Suomish; they were words borrowed or invented to describe family relationships in great detail. Languages reflect cultures; most languages distinguish brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, uncle, and link generations by “great” or “grand.” Some languages make no distinction between (for example) “father” and “uncle” and the language reflects tribal custom. Contrariwise, some languages (e.g., Norwegian) split “uncle” into maternal and paternal (“morbror” and “farbror”).
     The Free Traders can state a relationship such as “my maternal foster half-stepuncle by marriage, once removed and now deceased” in one word, one which means that relationship and no other. The relation between any spot on a family tree and any other spot can be so stated. Where most cultures find a dozen titles for relatives sufficient the Traders use more than two thousand. The languages name discreetly and quickly such variables as generation, lineal or collateral, natural or adopted, age within generation, sex of speaker, sex of relative referred to, sexes of relatives forming linkage, consanguinity or affinity, and vital status.
     Thorby’s first task was to learn the word and the relationship defined by it with which he must address each of more than eighty new relatives; he had to understand the precise flavor of relationship, close or distant, senior or junior; he had to learn other titles by which he would be addressed by each of them. Until he had learned all this, he could not talk because as soon as he opened his mouth he would commit a grave breach in manners.
     He had to associate five things for each member of the Sisu’s company, a face, a full name (his own name was now Thorby Baslim-Krausa), a family title, that person’s family title for him, and that person’s ship’s rank (such as “Chief Officer” or “Starboard Second Assistant Cook”). He learned that each person must be addressed by family title in family matters, by ship’s rank concerning ship’s duties, and by given names on social occasions if the senior permitted it — nicknames hardly existed, since the nickname could be used only down, never up.
     Until he grasped these distinctions, he could not be a functioning member of the family even though he was legally such. The life of the ship was a caste system of such complex obligations, privileges and required reactions to obligatory actions, as to make the stratified, protocol-ridden society of Jubbul seem like chaos. The Captain’s wife was Thorby’s “mother” but she was also Deputy Chief Officer; how he addressed her depended on what he had to say. Since he was in bachelor quarters, the mothering phase ceased before it started; nevertheless she treated him warmly as a son and offered her cheek for his kiss just as she did for Thorby’s roommate and elder brother Fritz.
     But as Deputy Chief Officer she could be as cold as a tax collector.
     Not that her status was easier; she would not be Chief Officer until the old woman had the grace to die. In the meantime she was hand and voice and body servant for her motherin-law. Theoretically senior officers were elective; practically it was a one-party system with a single slate. Krausa was captain because his father had been; his wife was deputy chief officer because she was his wife, and she would someday become chief officer — and boss him and his ship as his mother did — for the same reason. Meanwhile his wife’s high rank carried with it the worst job in the ship, with no respite, for senior officers served for life … unless impeached, convicted, and expelled — onto a planet for unsatisfactory performance, into the chilly thinness of space for breaking the ancient and pig-headed laws of Sisu.
     But such an event was as scarce as a double eclipse; Thorby’s mother’s hope lay in heart failure, stroke, or other hazard of old age.

     Arranged by case cards with photographs, the data Thorby had had trouble learning piecemeal he soaked up in half an hour — thanks to Baslim’s training and Doctor Mader’s orderliness. In addition, she had prepared a family tree for the Sisu; it was the first he had seen; his relatives did not need diagrams, they simply knew.
     She showed him his own place. “The plus mark means that while you are in the direct sept, you were not born there. Here are a couple more, transferred from collateral branches to sept … to put them into line of command I suspect. You people call yourselves a ‘family’ but the grouping is a phratry.”
     “A what?”
     “A related group without a common ancestor which practices exogamy — that means marrying outside the group. “The exogamy taboo holds, modified by rule of moiety. You know how the two moieties work?”
     “They take turns having the day’s duty.”
     “Yes, but do you know why the starboard watch has more bachelors and the port watch more single women?
     “Uh, I don’t think so.”
     “Females adopted from other ships are in port moiety; native bachelors are starboard. Every girl in your side must be exchanged … unless she can find a husband among a very few eligible men. You should have been adopted on this side, but that would have required a different foster father. See the names with a blue circle-and-cross? One of those girls is your future wife … unless you find a bride on another ship.
     Thorby felt dismayed at the thought. “Do I have to?”
     “If you gain ship’s rank to match your family rank, you’ll have to carry a club to beat them off.”
     It fretted him. Swamped with family, he felt more need for a third leg than he did for a wife.
     “Most societies,” she went on, “practice both exogamy and endogamy — a man must marry outside his family but inside his nation, race, religion, or some large group, and you Free Traders are no exception; you must cross to another moiety but you can’t marry fraki. But your rules produce an unusual setup; each ship is a patrilocal matriarchy.
     “A what?”
     ” ‘Patrilocal’ means that wives join their husbands’ families; a matriarchy … well, who bosses this ship?”
     “Why, the Captain.”
     “He does?”
     “Well, Father listens to Grandmother, but she is getting old and —”
     “No ‘buts.’ The Chief Officer is boss. It surprised me; I thought it must be just this ship. But it extends all through the People. Men do the trading, conn the ship and mind its power plant — but a woman always is boss. It makes sense within its framework; it makes your marriage customs tolerable.
     Thorby wished she would not keep referring to marriage.
     “You haven’t seen ships trade daughters. Girls leaving weep and wail and almost have to be dragged … but girls arriving have dried their eyes and are ready to smile and flirt, eyes open for husbands. If a girl catches the right man and pushes him, someday she can be sovereign of an Independent state. Until she leaves her native ship, she isn’t anybody — which is why her tears dry quickly. But if men were boss, girl-swapping would be slavery; as it is, it’s a girl’s big chance.
     Doctor Mader turned away from the chart. “Human customs that help people live together are almost never planned. But they are useful, or they don’t survive. Thorby, you have been fretted about how to behave toward your relatives.”
     “I certainly have!”
     “What’s the most important thing to a Trader?
     Thorby thought. “Why, the Family. Everything depends on who you are in the Family.”
     “Not at all. His ship.
     “Well, when you say ‘ship’ you mean ‘family.’ “
     “Just backwards. If a Trader becomes dissatisfied, where can he go? Space won’t have him without a ship around him; nor can he imagine living on a planet among fraki, the idea is disgusting. His ship is his life, the air he breathes comes from his ship; somehow he must learn to live in it. But the pressure of personalities is almost unbearable and there is no way to get away from each other. Pressure could build up until somebody gets killed … or until the ship itself is destroyed. But humans devise ways to adjust to any conditions. You people lubricate with rituals, formalism, set patterns of speech, obligatory actions and responses. When things grow difficult you hide behind a pattern. That’s why Fritz didn’t stay angry.”
     “He couldn’t. You had done something wrong … but the fact itself showed that you were ignorant. Fritz had momentarily forgotten, then he remembered and his anger disappeared. The People do not permit themselves to be angry with a child; instead they set him back on the proper path … until he follows your complex customs as automatically as Fritz does.”
     “Uh, I think I see.” Thorby sighed. “But it isn’t easy.”
     “Because you weren’t born to it. But you’ll learn and it will be no more effort than breathing — and as useful. Customs tell a man who he is, where he belongs, what he must do. Better illogical customs than none; men cannot live together without them. From an anthropologist’s view, ‘justice’ is a search for workable customs.

     He had been attending the ship’s school. Baslim had given him a broad education, but this fact did not stand out to his instructors, since most of what they regarded as necessary — the Finnish language as they spoke it, the history of the People and of Sisu, trading customs, business practices, and export and import laws of many planets, hydroponics and ship’s economy, ship safety and damage control — were subjects that Baslim had not even touched; he had emphasized languages, science, mathematics, galactography and history. The new subjects Thorby gobbled with a speed possible only to one renshawed by Baslim’s strenuous methods. The Traders needed applied mathematics — bookkeeping and accounting, astrogation, nucleonics for a hydrogen-fusion-powered n-ship. Thorby splashed through the first, the second was hardly more difficult, but as for the third, the ship’s schoolmaster was astounded that this ex-fraki had already studied multi-dimensional geometries.

     “Now is a good time, while we’re grounded. It’s safer and the prayers and cleansing aren’t so lengthy.” Krausa paused. “No, well wait until your status is clear — the Chief is hinting that you are material for his department. He has some silly idea that you will never have children anyway and he might regard a visit as an opportunity to snag you. Engineers!
     Thorby understood this speech, even the last word. Engineers were regarded as slightly balmy; it was commonly believed that radiations from the artificial star that gave Sisu her life ionized their brain tissues. True or not, engineers could get away with outrageous breeches of etiquette — “not guilty by reason of insanity” was an unspoken defense for them once they had been repeatedly exposed to the hazards of their trade. The Chief Engineer even talked back to Grandmother.
     But junior engineers were not allowed to stand power room watches until they no longer expected to have children; they took care of auxiliary machinery and stood training watches in a dummy power room. The People were cautious about harmful mutations, because they were more exposed to radiation hazards than were planet dwellers. One never saw overt mutation among them; what happened to babies distorted at birth was a mystery so taboo that Thorby was not even aware of it; he simply knew that power watchstanders were old men.

     Then he had a cheerful idea. “Tell you what. Son! It’s possible that the girl for you isn’t aboard. After all, there are only a few in port side purdah — and picking a wife is a serious matter. She can gain you status or ruin you. So why not take it easy? At the Great Gathering you will meet hundreds of eligible girls. If you find one you like and who likes you, I’ll discuss it with your Grandmother and if she approves, well dicker for her exchange. We won’t be stingy either. How does that sound?”

(ed note: Thorby is starting to undergo puberty, but doesn't really understand this boy-girl thing yet. He is utterly unaware that Mata had been throwing herself at him. Which technically violates the exogamy taboo)

     (Jeri said) “Mata has been swapped.”
     Mata swapped? Gone forever? Little Mattie with the grave eyes and merry giggle? Thorby felt a burst of sorrow and realized to his surprise that it mattered.
     “I don’t believe it!”
     “Don’t be a fool.”
     “When? Where has she gone? Why didn’t you tell me?”
     “To El Nido, obviously; it’s the only ship of the People in port. About an hour ago. I didn’t tell you because I had no idea it was coming … until I was summoned to Grandmother’s cabin to say good-by.” Jeri frowned. “It had to come someday … but I thought Grandmother would let her stay as long as she kept her skill as a tracker.”
     “Then why, Jeri? Why?”
     Jeri stood up, said woodenly, “Foster Ortho-Uncle, I have said enough.”
     Thorby pushed him back into his chair. “You can’t get away with that, Jeri. I’m your ‘uncle’ only because they said I was. But I’m still the ex-fraki you taught to use a tracker and we both know it. Now talk man to man. Spill it!”
     “You won’t like it.”
     “I don’t like it now! Mattie gone … Look, Jeri, there is nobody here but us. Whatever it is, tell me. I promise you, on Sisu’s steel, that I won’t make an uncle-and-nephew matter of it. Whatever you say, the Family will never know.”
     “Grandmother might be listening.”
     “If she is, I’ve ordered you to talk and it’s my responsibility. But she won’t be; it’s time for her nap. So talk.”
     “Okay.” Jeri looked at him sourly. “You asked for it. You mean to say you haven’t the dimmest idea why Grandmother hustled my Sis out of the ship?”
     “Huh? None … or I wouldn’t ask.”
     Jeri made an impatient noise. “Thorby, I knew you were thick-witted. I didn’t know you were deaf, dumb, and blind.”
     “Never mind the compliments! Tell me the score.”
     “You’re the reason Mata got swapped. You.” Jeri looked at Thorby with disgust.
     “Who else? Who pairs off at spat ball? Who sits together at story films? What new relative is always seen with a girl from his own moiety? I’ll give you a hint — the name starts with ‘T.’ “
     Thorby turned white. “Jeri, I never had the slightest idea.”
     “You’re the only one in the ship who didn’t.” Jeri shrugged. “I’m not blaming you. It was her fault. She was chasing you, you stupid clown! What I can’t figure out is why you didn’t know. I tried to give you hints.”
     Thorby was as innocent of such things as a bird is of ballistics. “I don’t believe it.”
     “It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t … everybody else saw it. But you both could have gotten away with it, as long as you kept it open and harmless — and I was watching too closely for anything else — if Sis hadn’t lost her head.”
     “Huh? How?”
     “Sis did something that made Grandmother willing to part with a crack firecontrolman. She went to Grandmother and asked to be adopted across moiety line. In her simple, addled-pated way she figured that since you were adopted in the first place, it didn’t really matter that she was your niece — just shift things around and she could marry you.” Jeri grunted. “If you had been adopted on the other side, she could have wangled it. But she must have been clean off her head to think that Grandmother — Grandmother! — would agree to anything so scandalous.”

     Finally he remembered that there was one person with whom he could talk. He took his troubles to Doctor Mader.
     Mention of purdah reminded Thorby that Margaret would see Mata. He started with stumbling embarrassment to explain what he had come to talk about. Doctor Mader listened gravely, her fingers busy with packing. “I know, Thorby. I probably heard the sad details sooner than you did.”
     “Margaret, did you ever heard of anything so silly?”
     She hesitated. “Many things … much sillier.”
     “But there wasn’t anything to it! And if that was what Mata wanted, why didn’t Grandmother let her … instead of shipping her out among strangers. I … well, I wouldn’t have minded. After I got used to it.”
     The fraki woman smiled. “That’s the oddest gallant speech I ever heard, Thorby.”
     “Thorby said, “Could you get a message to her for me?”
     “Thorby, if you want to send her your undying love or something, then don’t. Your Grandmother did the best thing for her great granddaughter, did it quickly with kindness and wisdom. Did it in Mata’s interests against the immediate interests of Sisu, since Mata was a valuable fighting man. But your Grandmother measured up to the high standards expected of a Chief Officer; she considered the long-range interests of everyone and found them weightier than the loss of one firecontrolman. I admire her at last — between ourselves, I’ve always detested the old girl.” She smiled suddenly. “And fifty years from now Mata will make the same sort of wise decisions; the sept of Sisu is sound.”
     “I’ll be flogged if I understand it!”
     “Because you are almost as much fraki as I am … and haven’t had my training. Thorby, most things are right or wrong only in their backgrounds; few things are good or evil in themselves. But things that are right or wrong according to their culture, really are so. This exogamy rule the People live by, you probably think it’s just a way to outsmart mutations — in fact that’s the way it is taught in the ship’s school.”
     “Of course. That’s why I can’t see —”
     “Just a second. So you can’t see why your Grandmother should object. But it’s essential that the People marry back and forth among ships, not just because of genes — that’s a side issue — but because a ship is too small to be a stable culture. Ideas and attitudes have to be cross-germinated, too, or Sisu and the whole culture will die. So the custom is protected by strongest possible taboo. A ‘minor’ break in this taboo is like a ‘minor’ break in the ship, disastrous unless drastic steps are taken. Now … do you understand that?”
     “Why, I’m a Free Trader. At least that’s what Father intended, if I can ever get over my fraki habits. But I’m not a slave. The People are free. All of us.”
     “All of you … but not each of you.
     “What do you mean?”
     “The People are free. It’s their proudest boast. Any of them can tell you that freedom is what makes them People and not fraki. The People are free to roam the stars, never rooted to any soil. So free that each ship is a sovereign state, asking nothing of anyone, going anywhere, fighting against any odds, asking no quarter, not even cooperating except as it suits them. Oh, the People are free; this old Galaxy has never seen such freedom. A culture of less than a hundred thousand people spread through a quarter of a billion cubic light-years and utterly free to move anywhere at any time. There has never been a culture like it and there may never be again. Free as the sky … more free than the stars, for the stars go where they must. Ah, yes, the People are free.” She paused. “But at what price was this freedom purchased?”
     Thorby blinked.
     “I’ll tell you. Not with poverty. The People enjoy the highest average wealth in history. The profits of your trading are fantastic. Nor has it been with cost to health or sanity. I’ve never seen a community with less illness. Nor have you paid in happiness or self-respect. You’re a smugly happy lot, and your pride is something sinful — of course you do have a lot to be proud of. But what you have paid for your unparalleled freedom … is freedom itself. No, I’m not talking riddles. The People are free … at the cost of loss of individual freedom for each of you — and I don’t except the Chief Officer or Captain; they are the least free of any.
     Her words sounded outrageous. “How can we be both free and not free?” he protested.
     “Ask Mata. Thorby, you live in a steel prison; you are allowed out perhaps a few hours every few months. You live by rules more stringent than any prison. That those rules are intended to make you all happy — and do — is beside the point; they are orders you have to obey. You sleep where you are told, you eat when you are told and what you are offered — it’s unimportant that it is lavish and tasty; the point is you have no choice. You are told what to do ninety percent of the time. You are so bound by rules that much of what you say is not free speech but required ritual; you could go through a day and not utter a phrase not found in the Laws of Sisu. Right?”
     “Yes, but —”
     “Yes, with no ‘buts.’ Thorby, what sort of people have so little freedom? Slaves? Can you think of a better word?”
     “But we can’t be sold!”
     “Slavery has often existed where slaves were never bought and sold, but simply inherited. As in Sisu. Thorby, being a slave means having someone as your master, with no hope of changing it. You slaves who call yourselves the ‘People’ can’t even hope for manumission.”

     Thoth IV was followed by Woolamurra and each jump zigzagged closer to the coming Great Gathering of the People; the ship was seized with carnival fever. Crew members were excused from work to practice on musical instruments, watches were rearranged to permit quartets to sing together, a training table was formed for athletes and they were excused from all watches save battle stations in order to train themselves into exhausted sleep. Headaches and tempers developed over plans for hospitality fit to support the exalted pride of Sisu.
     Thorby felt guilty. He said, “Grandmother … you mast have been to lots of Gatherings. Would you tell me about them?”
     That did it. She relaxed and said in hushed voice, “They don’t have the Gatherings nowadays that they had when I was a girl …” Thorby did not have to speak again, other than sounds of awed interest. Long after the rest were waiting for Grandmother’s permission to rise, she was saying, “… and I had my choice of a hundred ships, let me tell you. I was a pert young thing, with a tiny foot and a saucy nose, and my Grandmother got offers for me throughout the People. But I knew Sisu was for me and I stood up to her. Oh, I was a lively one! Dance all night and as fresh for the games next day as a —”

     The great gathering was even more than Thorby had imagined. Mile after mile of ships, more than eight hundred bulky Free Traders arranged in concentric ranks around a circus four miles across … Sisu in the innermost circle — which seemed to please Thorby’s Mother — then more ships than Thorby knew existed: Kraken, Deimos, James B. Quinn, Firefly, Bon Marche, Dom Pedro, Cee Squared, Omega, El Nido — Thorby resolved to see how Mata was doing — Saint Christopher, Vega, Vega Prime, Galactic Banker, Romany Lass … Thorby made note to get a berthing chart … Saturn, Chiang, Country Store, Joseph Smith, Aloha
     There were too many. If he visited ten ships a day, he might see most of them. But there was too much to do and see; Thorby gave up the notion.
     Inside the circle was a great temporary stadium, larger than the New Amphitheater at Jubbulpore. Here elections would be held, funerals and weddings, athletic contests, entertainments, concerts — Thorby recalled that Spirit of Sisu would be performed there and trembled with stage fright.
     Between stadium and ships was a midway — booths, rides, games, exhibits educational and entertaining, one-man pitches, dance halls that never closed, displays of engineering gadgets, fortunetellers, gambling for prizes and cash, open-air bars, soft drink counters offering anything from berry juices of the Pleiades worlds to a brown brew certified to be the ancient, authentic Terran Coca-Cola as licensed for bottling on Hekate.
     When he saw this maelstrom Thorby felt that he had wandered into Joy Street — bigger, brighter, and seven times busier than Joy Street with the fleet in. This was the fraki’s chance to turn a fairly honest credit while making suckers of the shrewdest businessmen in the Galaxy; this was the day, with the lid off and the Trader without his guards up — they’d sell you your own hat if you laid it on the counter.
     A Great Gathering, although a time of fun and renewed friendships, has its serious purposes. In addition to funerals, memorial services for lost ships, weddings, and much transferring of young females, there is also business affecting the whole People and, most important, the paramount matter of buying ships.
     Hekate has the finest shipyards in the explored Galaxy. Men and women have children; ships spawn, too. Sisu was gravid with people, fat with profit in uranium and thorium; it was time that the Family split up. At least a third of the families had the same need to trade wealth for living room; fraki shipbrokers were rubbing their hands, mentally figuring commissions. Starships do not sell like cold drinks; shipbrokers and salesmen often live on dreams. But perhaps a hundred ships would be sold in a few weeks.
     Some would be new ships from the yards of Galactic Transport, Ltd., daughter corporation of civilization-wide Galactic Enterprises, or built by Space Engineers Corporation, or Hekate Ships, or Propulsion, Inc., or Hascomb & Sons — all giants in the trade. But there was cake for everyone. The broker who did not speak for a builder might have an exclusive on a second-hand ship, or a line to a rumor of a hint that the owners of a suitable ship might listen if the price was right — a man could make a fortune if he kept his eyes open and his ear to the ground. It was a time to by-pass mails and invest in expensive n-space messages; the feast would soon be over.
     A family in need of space had two choices: either buy another ship, split and become two families, or a ship could join with another in purchasing a third, to be staffed from each. Twinning gave much status. It was proof that the family, which managed it, were master traders, able to give their kids a start in the world without help. But in practice the choice usually dwindled to one: join with another ship and split the expense, and even then it was often necessary to pledge all three ships against a mortgage on the new one.
     It had been thirty years since Sisu had split up. She had had three decades of prosperity; she should have been able to twin. But ten years ago at the last Great Gathering Grandmother had caused Sisu to guarantee along with parent ships the mortgage against a ship newly born. The new ship gave a banquet honoring Sisu, then jumped off into dark and never came back. Space is vast. Remember her name at Gathering.
     The result was that Sisu paid off one-third of forty percent of the cost of the lost ship; the blow hurt. The parent ships would reimburse Sisu — debts are always paid — but they had left the last Gathering lean from having spawned; coughing up each its own liability had left them skin and bones. You don’t dun a sick man; you wait
     Grandmother had not been stupid. The parent ships, Caesar Augustus and Dupont, were related to Sisu; one takes care of one’s own. Besides, it was good business; a trader unwilling to lend credit will discover that he has none. As it was, Sisu could write a draft on any Free Trader anywhere and be certain that it would be honored.
     But it left Sisu with less cash than otherwise at a time when the Family should split.

From CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein (1957)

      This book has the only example I can think of a human matriarchy in Heinlein, the society of the Traders (I don’t think Star’s society is matriarchal, it just happens to have a woman as the current incarnation of the ruler). As migrant anthropologist Doctor Margaret Mader explains, the traders have a patrilocal matriarchy; ultimately the boss is always, always a woman.

     That said

“You haven’t seen ships trade daughters. Girls leaving weep and wail and almost have to be dragged… but girls arriving have dried their eyes and are ready to smile and flirt, eyes open for husbands. If a girl catches the right man and pushes him, someday she can be sovereign of an Independent state. Until she leaves her native ship, she isn’t anybody — which is why her tears dry quickly. But if men were boss, girl-swapping would be slavery; as it is, it’s a girl’s big chance.”

     It’s a Heinlein matriarchy. Women can become powerful but only if they snag and then push the right guy. People who remember how Starman Jones’ Ellie was careful to conceal her true skill from Max Jones may find this passage familiar:

Thorby beat [Mata] three games and tied one… a remarkable score, since she was female champion and was allowed only one point handicap when playing the male champion. But he did not think about it; he was enjoying himself.

     Sadly this does not end well because by Free Trader ways a Mata/Thorby romance qualifies as incest and Citizen is also the Heinlein where the authorities are willing to step in to prevent incest. How cruel and restricted the ways of the Ship!

     That meager route to power is only available for Free Traders women; other societies are worse.


     (pre-spaceflight) History there (on planet Kandermir) had taken an unusual course. Vast fertile plains fostered the growth on one continent of a nomadic society which conquered the sedentary peoples. This was not like cases on Earth when barbaric wanderers overran a civilization. On Kandemir, the nomads were the higher culture, those who invented animal domestication, writing, super-tribal government, and machine technology. The cities became mere appendages where helots laboured at the tasks such as mining which could not move with the seasons. When the nomads learned how to cross Kandemir’s small shallow oceans, their way of life soon dominated the world. Warfare and economic competition between their hordes spurred the advent of an industrial revolution. But gunpowder, steam engines, and mass production shifted the balance. Nomad society could not readily assimilate them; it developed strains. A century ago, Kandemir had become as chaotic as the last years of Earth. Then (interstellar) explorers from T’sjuda came upon it and began to trade (among other things, the secret of building FTL starships).

     Numerous Kandemirians went to space as students, workers, and mercenary soldiers—for T'sjuda, like Xo and some other powers, was not above occasional imperialism on backward planets. The Kandemirians returned home with new ideas for revitalizing their old culture. Under Ashchiza the Great, the Erzhuat Horde forced unification on Kandemir and launched a feverish programme of modernization; but one adapted to nomadism. The cybernetic machine replaced the helot (alternatively, the helots will live on planets), the spaceship replaced the wagon, the clans became the crews of distinct fleets. Soon Kandemirian merchants and adventurers swarmed through space. Yet their tradition bound them to the mother world, where they returned for those seasonal rites of kinship that corresponded in them to a religion. Thus the Grand Lord remained able to command their allegiance.

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)

Spacecraft Insurance

Shipping cargo via seagoing ships and trans-oceanic trade can be really lucrative, but just one shipwreck or pirate encounter on the far side of the globe will result in a total loss. Spacecraft will be no different, except you will probably be able to spot the pathetic remains of your ship through a strong telescope.

The loss of ones ship is a risk, and the management of risk is the world of Insurance. Anybody who was required to purchase liability insurance for their automobile has a rough idea of how it works. The insurer is betting that they will get more money from you in insurance premiums than they will have to pay out to settle any car wrecks you cause. Which is why they jack your premium if you actually have an accident or get too many traffic tickets. The insurance companies spend lots of money researching methods of calculating the precise amount of risk involved with anything they cover. They also keep a close eye on the behaviour of anybody they are underwriting.

Maritime insurance dates back to ancient Greece, but the real innovations were brought about by Edward Lloyd opening a coffee house in London in 1688.

In those times there were over 80 different London coffee houses (selling the "new black liquor from Turkey"), each associated with a different type of clientele. Coffee houses had already become associated with news, conversation, and commerce. The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse.

Lloyd opened his coffee house in a tiny area between the Tower of London and Thames Street, close to the Navy Office in Seething Lane. This just so happened to be the place where the world of London shipping and London finance intersected. While business was done at the Royal Exchange, news and information were gathered in coffee houses. So for Lloyd, it was a case of the three important parts of a successful business: Location, location, and location.

Lloyd's little coffee house quickly became very popular with ship’s captains, merchants and ship owners due to its location. Lloyd didn't have to listen to the sailor gossip for long to realize that all this intel was very valuable. He started publishing a regular sheet of intelligence on ships, individual ship seaworthiness rating, cargo and foreign events (which is still published to this day), and establishing a network of correspondents in ports across Europe. Coffee houses in general were already known as centers for news. Lloyd's sheet was a shipping list containing each ship's name, owner, captain, port of departure and destination, tonnage, number of decks, guns if any, where and when the vessel was built, and most important of all a rating of the ship's hull and equipment. Hulls were rated by how sound they were by the letters A, E, I, O, and U. Equipment was rated either Good, Middling, or Bad. So the best risk was a ship with the rating AG, the worst was UB. Priceless information for an investor or insurer.

The investors and ship insurers took notice, and Lloyd's became the go-to place where the rich made deals with ship owners. Lloyd soon had to relocate his coffee shop to a larger building closer to the Royal Exchange, and offered the patrons coffee, tea, sherbet, and fruit punch. Not to mention unlimited pens, ink, and paper for deal writing — on the house. I suspect that Lloyd trained his employees to listen carefully to any conversations within ear-shot, and report back, because coffee houses were not only centers for the distribution of news, but also for the gathering of news.

Lloyd also hosted "candle auctions." For instance, say Cyrano Jones has a parcel of Spican Flame Gems for sale. The potential buyers gather at the auction site, the auctioneer sticks a pin into a candle an inch or so down from the top, lights the candle, and the frantic bidding begins. When the candle burns down to the point where the pin drops out, the auction is over and the high bidder has won (this is the origin of the phrase "to hear a pin drop"). The point of the candle is two-fold. First the time limit gets the bidders all frantic, which increases the seller's hopes of a bidding war breaking out. But secondly and more importantly, nobody knows exactly when the pin will fall, making it impossible for somebody to make a last-second bid. A similar method is used in the present day on some online auction sites. The exact ending time is randomly selected in order to foil last-second auction sniping.

Lloyd's coffee house had become an insurance marketplace. Starting with the Lloyd's Act of 1871, it became a partially mutualised marketplace within which multiple financial backers come together to pool and spread risk. This was the origin of the famous Lloyd's of London. Edward Lloyd had spotted a hole in the market and swiftly moved to fill the niche.

The insurance marketplace also attracted an infrastructure of useful specialists, such as shipbrokers, admiralty lawyers, bankers, surveyors, loss adjusters, general average adjusters, etc. To get a cut of the action you had to be where the action is, and all of the action was at Lloyds.

Naturally the underwriters exerted considerable power over the ship owners. If your ship was rated as being a broken-down shipwreck-waiting-to-happen, nobody will be willing to hire you to ship cargo, front you the money for cargo speculation, or insure your ship. Owners had to clean up their act to improve their ship rating, and the underwriters decided what counted as cleaning up. David Drake applied these concepts to the Bonding Authority featured in his science fictional mercenary stories.

The practice of insuring ocean shipping has the quaint name of "underwriting." The name was coined in Lloyd's of London, where under the Lloyd's risk information on the slip of paper the insurers would literally write their names.

Everything old is new again, so science fiction authors can confidently add a futuristic Lloyd's of Luna to their universe. Or even have Lloyds of London still in existence hundred of years from now. Use the way that candle auctions transformed into random online auction end-times as a template to make it more futuristic, transpose the music to a science fiction note so to speak.


      He gulped beer noisily. "Boy," he said, "boy, oh boy!. Am I ever glad to get off that rich b***h's toy ship!"
     "But you're rich yourself, surely," said Grimes. "You must be, to be an El Doradan …"
        "Ha! Me an El Doradan! That'd be the sunny Friday! No, Captain, I'm just a poor but reasonably honest Dog Star Line second mate. Beagle happened to be on Electra when her ladyship was there to take delivery of her super-duper yacht. Seems that she came there in an El Doradan ship—they do have ships, you know, and a few playboy spacemen to run 'em—and assumed that she'd be allowed to lift off in her own fully automated vessel without having a qualified human master on board. But Lloyds'—may the Odd Gods of the Galaxy rot them cotton socks!—got into the act. No duly certificated master astronaut on the Register, no insurance cover. But money talks, as always. More than a couple or three Dog Star line shares are held by her high and mightiness. So the Old Man got an urgent Carlottigram (FTL telegram) from Head Office—I'd like to know what it said!—and, immediately after receipt, yelled for me and then turned on the hard sell. Not that there was any need for it. The offer of a Master's berth at well above our Award rates for the rank … Only a yachtmaster, it's true—but master nonetheless and bloody well paid. Like a mug, I jumped at it. Little did I know …"
       "So you don't like the job, Captain," said Grimes.
       "You can say that again, Captain. And again. Cooped up with a snooty, rich b***h in a solid gold sardine can …"

     The next day was a heavy one for Grimes. There were, as yet, no Lloyd's Surveyors on Botany Bay; nonetheless The Far Traveler was required to have a fresh Certificate of Spaceworthiness issued to her before she could lift from the surface of the planet. Of course, the Baroness could depart without such documentation if she so wished— but without it her ship would not be covered by the underwriters. And she was, for all her title and air of elegant decadence, a shrewd businesswoman.
     She called Grimes to her presence. The robot butler ushered him into the lady's boudoir where she was seated at her beautiful, fragile-seeming, pseudo-antique desk. She was wearing the heavy-rimmed spectacles again, was studying a thick, important-looking book.
       "Ah, good morning, Acting Port Captain … Now, this matter of insurance … As you already know, Commander Delamere's artificers were obliged to pierce my hull to fit the towing lugs. Today they are making the damage good as required by the contract. After these repairs have been completed a survey must be carried out."
       "By whom, Your Excellency?" asked Grimes.
       "By you, of course, Port Captain. You will receive the usual fee."
       "But I'm not a surveyor …"
       "You are the Port Captain." (Commander of the space port) A slim index finger tipped with a long, gold-enameled nail stabbed down at the open pages. "Listen. On planets where Lloyds maintain neither offices, agents nor surveyors Lloyd's Certificates may be endorsed or issued by such planetary officials as are deemed competent by the Corporation to carry out such functions. Port Captains, Port Engineers, etc., etc. … Commanding officers of vessels or bases of the Interstellar Federation's Survey Service…" She smiled briefly. "I have no intention of paying a surveyor's fee to your friend Commander Delamere. In any case, as his people are making the repairs he is ruled out." She read more. "Commanding officers of vessels or bases of the Imperial Navy of Waverley. No, I'm not going to wait around until that Waverley cruiser—Robert Bruce, isn't it?—condescends to drop in. So …"
       "So I'm it," said Grimes.
       "Elegantly expressed, Acting Port Captain. But I suggest that you accept guidance from the computer. After all, she is the ship's brain. She is the ship—just as your intelligence is you—and is fully capable of self diagnosis."
       "Mphm," grunted Grimes. He wanted to pull his vile pipe out of his pocket, to fill it and light it, but knew that to ask permission so to do would bring a rebuff. He said, "So you need a Lloyd's Surveyor as much—or as little—as you need a captain."
       She said, "I need neither—but Lloyd's of London insist that I must have both. And now may I suggest that you get on with your surveying?"

     Finally he went back to The Far Traveler. The repair work had been completed but he thought that he had better go through the motions of being a Lloyd's Surveyor, even though it was almost impossible to detect where the golden hull had been patched, even though Big Sister had expressed her grudging satisfaction. He told the engineer lieutenant not to dismantle the staging until he had made his inspection. He tapped all around the repairs with a borrowed hammer, not at all sure what he was looking or listening for. He told the engineer to send to the destroyer for a can of vactest and then to have the black, viscous paste smeared all over the skin where the plugs had been inserted. Big Sister complained (she would) that this was not necessary, adding that she was quite happy with the making good of the damage and that she objected to having this filthy muck spread over her shell plating. Grimes told her that he would be signing the certificate of spaceworthiness and that he would not do so until he was happy.
       Sulkily Big Sister pressurized the after compartment. Not the smallest air bubble marred the gleaming surface of the vactest. The artificers cleaned the gummy mess off the golden skin, began to take down the scaffolding. Grimes went aboard the ship to endorse the Lloyd's Certificate of Spaceworthiness. The Baroness was almost affable, inviting him to have a drink. Billinger was conspicuous by his absence.

From THE FAR TRAVELER by A. Bertram Chandler (1977)

Spacecraft Purchase And Repos

RocketCat sez

Oh, you stupid naive rock-rats are all alike. Every last one of you think you're the first to come up with the bright idea of fishing between the sofa cushions until you promote the down-payment on a broken-down fifth-hand death-trap hunk-o-junk OTV and to use it to strike it rich asteroid prospecting or cargo hauling.

Blinded by the sight of your future riches when you discover the mother-load, or deluded by precious childhood myths of how hard work is always rewarded, you don't bat an eye at the usurious terms on the loan agreement you sign with an ounce of your own blood.

If you had two brain cells to rub together you'd realize that anybody who'd lend you money on the strength of your pathetic business plan has gotta be a loan shark. Their two associates: "Bugsy" and "Knuckles", should have been a tip-off.

So out you go, in debt up to your eyebrows, into the wilds of the asteroid belt. Only to find to your dismay, that all the asteroids are either [a] worthless or [b] already claimed. No matter how hard you work.

As the time for the next payment draws closer, the hab module's humidity regulator breaks down under the incredible strain of dealing with the flood of cold sweat pouring off your brow. Black despair becomes your bunk-mate.

How are you going to get yourself out of this fine mess, Horatio Alger?

When the loan shark forecloses on you like the sub-prime mortgage you are, you have limited set of nasty options.

[1] You can let them repossess your sky trash ship then hit the asteroid slums a broken person, pan-handling for your air-tax.

[2] You can try to avoid the loan shark, while you frantically try to scrape together the loan payment, trying not to think about interest compounded hourly. When you have it, you have a quaint fantasy in your head that your late payment will only result in a few broken limbs which will only partially impair your ability to earn money for your next payment.

[3] Or you can just flip out, scream to the uncaring heavens how you ain't gonna take it no more, and paint a big Jolly Roger skull-and-cross-bones symbol on the side of your ship.

In the latter two cases you will eventually be faced with Bugsy and Knuckles, quietly telling you that Mr. Shark is very unhappy with you while systematically doubling the number of bones in your skeleton. Unless you are truly out of luck and Mr. Shark contracts some professional bounty hunters to track you down and repo your ship.

Small businesses or even a Maw and Paw team might want to purchase a spacecraft to use in their startup business. A small ship can be used for asteroid mining or small cargo transport. Since spacecraft are going to be incredibly expensive, the happy couple will have to draft a business plan to convince Dealer Dan The Used Spaceship Man or the First National Bank of Ceres to advance them a mortgage loan or other type of financing.

Invariably many of these small businesses will discover that their business model does not capture enough value to keep up with the mortgage payments. They default. Sooner or later (depending upon how lenient the lender is) the business be hit by foreclosure and their ship will be repossessed. The bank will tell them to return the spacecraft or face a replevin lawsuit.

Honest businesses will meekly surrender the spacecraft to the bank and try to get a lift back to the civilized parts of the solar system. Desperate businesses will turn off their automatic identification system, and hope they can get the mortgage money before the bank catches up to them. Businesses that undergo psychotic breaks can "skip": run away from the bank's mortgage and become a full pirate.

For the latter two types of foreclosure, the banks will need specialized employees or contractors to get their spacecraft back. Repo crew and bounty hunters. They are needed since a pirate will just use the bank's replevin as toilet paper. If you are dealing with a pirate, the repo crew will probably need to be armed. The situtation and the local laws will determine whether "armed" means sidearms or ship-to-ship missiles. Tough minded banks might consider the destruction of the forclosed spacecraft to be almost as good as repossession. Potential pirates might think twice if the bank has a reputation for bringing defaulters in dead or alive.


The Xinglong died stupid. Afterward, everyone knew she was one of thousands of small-time rock-hopping prospector ships. The Belt was lousy with them: five-or six-family operations that had scraped together enough for a down payment and set up operations. When it happened, they'd been three payments behind, and their bank—Consolidated Holdings and Investments—had put a lien on the ship. Which, common wisdom had it, was why they had disabled her transponder. Just honest folks with a rust bucket to call their own trying to keep flying.

If you were going to make a poster of the Belter's dream, it would have been the Xinglong.

The Scipio Africanus, a patrol destroyer, was due to head back down toward Mars at the end of its two-year tour of the Belt. They both headed for a captured cometary body a few hundred thousand kilometers from Chiron to top off their water.

When the prospecting ship first came in range, the Scipio saw a fast-moving ship running dark and headed more or less in their direction. The official Martian press releases all said that the Scipio had tried repeatedly to hail her. The OPA pirate casts all said it was crap and that no listening station in the Belt had heard anything like that. Everyone agreed that the Scipio had opened its point defense cannons and turned the prospecting ship into glowing slag.

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by James Corey (2011)

The promise of private spaceflight brings with it the conditions of the socioeconomic systems from which it stems. By the mid-22nd century, there are so many private space operations that the asteroid belt and many of the minor bodies of the solar system are crawling with mining operations. Their primary function is not to send their goods back planetside — such an endeavor requires more ∆V than it’s worth in most cases — but to supply other interplanetary operations.

Rather than investing in such risky enterprises themselves, corporations offer to buy shares in small, independent mining operations, giving its debtor the upfront liquidity to purchase the necessary mining equipment, expertise, habitat, and spacecraft to establish a mining and manufacturing endeavor.

Many such operations, through either dishonesty, lack of due dilligence on the part of the sponsor corporation, or prospects that didn’t pan out, exceed their allotted time to turn a profit. By 2170, a majority of the Euros invested have failed to return home with interest and the corporations are looking for a way to reduce the scale of their losses.

When corporations foreclose on such an operation, though, the cost of retrieving the assets is likely to exceed the value of the assets. Rather than throwing good money after bad, corporations offer bounties on the assets of a foreclosed operation, payable to anyone who returns them.

Some miners consider their options and turn them in to their creditors themselves. Some hole up in asteroid fortresses, maximizing the cost of retrieving them.

Some assemble their resources into a spacecraft and run.

The latter the pretty for Repos — solitary entrepreneurs who specialize in altering the vector of a spacecraft to bring it into the reach of corporate interests who will pay to regain the value of the assets, typically liquidating them to recover as much of their investment as they can.

Because equipment gets worn and obsolete over time, the earlier a repo can return foreclosed equipment, the greater its value and the greater the repo’s cut. However, as a matter of policy, corporations will pay a flat fee for returning the defaulters to their authority so they can sue them. The prospectors’ old, obsolete equipment is often worth less when resold than it is to the repo, who often take any useful equipment for themselves to repair or modify their own craft.

Repo Strategy

Repos use several features of interplanetary law (such as it is) to their benefit.

  1. No laws, nations, or corporations control interplanetary space. Many craft have sets of laws, particularly when they carry large groups of people, but their laws have no weight while berthed or over any other craft in space.
  2. No individual or craft found piercing the envelope of a habitat will ever again be given berth in a station or spaceport. The UN considers such an action a crime against humanity except within the bounds of two nations under a declared state of war*, and almost every other port considers an individual who would do such a thing to be an existential hazard to the habitat.
  3. Likewise, most stations and spaceports view with an attitude between suspicion and existential fear any craft that will not allow another to dock, on the assumption that any restriction on docking endangers all who travel space. Some societies weigh the actions against mitigating circumstance, where others view it as an absolute law.

Repos therefore broadcast their endeavor for all to see, effectively holding themselves hostage, daring their quarry to take aggressive action that would forever banish them from their sources of fuel, water, food, and companionship. Because of the increased mass of additional crew, few repo craft can afford a second crew member and their associated life support. On the other hand, uncrewed craft are ready targets for any defensive capability a fleeing craft might have.Their pursuits are a popular form of entertainment and many several better-known repos help support themselves through corporate sponsorship of their broadcasts.

This craft, however, is not owned by one such repo. Instead, it is owned by Francesca “Frank” Nguyen, herself a former prospector who purchased her way out of debt by repossessing a malfunctioning, obsolete, adrift hydrogen mining craft. To return it to its corporate creditors, she approached its airlock with an MMU, then tased the crew, piloting the craft herself to Chiang-Diaz Station in a nearby Jovian orbit, and retrieved the bounty on the fugitive Archer Family gang.

She has since incorporated into the craft a radiator from a small space station, a drone launcher from a Jovian ring mining operation, and the cupola from a crewed space tug. She’s been unable to upgrade the NERVA-style nuclear engine to a VASIMR that would give her a much wider range of tactics for approaching other craft, but fully intends to do so when she’s got the kwai.


      Monthly payments too.

     It is a common misconception that banks only float loans for traders and merchants to buy ships. Not true. Especially not true if you read what I posted about the Company and groups like the TAS (which may actually be divisions of the Company but let's not get into that here). Having a stake in exploitation er ... exploration is just too crucial to leave to amateurs like the Scouts or Navy.
     Those clowns might make new knowledge public for some trumped up ideal like 'the good of mankind'. Well what's good for the Company is good for everyone! Besides banks don't care how you make their/your money. You can haul cargo, frozen immigrants, perfumed nobles or make it other ways. You just need a good business model.

     There are very few ships built with ground assault in mind despite what conspiracy buffs tell you about CorpSec black ops. Thus mercenary groups often face a shortage of vessels willing to deliver them to landing zones. Most people built a ground assault transport (or modifying an existing ship) can find steady work with a number of up and coming mercs who can't afford a Broadsword yet or do not want the hassle.
     Being owned by the bank has a certain cachet. It's amazing how many planetary governments will wait patiently for your ship to land, then engage the mercs as they debark. No one wants to piss off the bank. The same goes for mercs on the ground. Hardened mercs, warlords and despots will usually treat the ship (and therefore her crew) well, allowing them to leave unmolested or offering gainful employment. This may have something to do with some banks siccing a transport full of lawyers on people stealing bank owned ships.

     Search and rescue can be very lucrative. Many backwaters simply don't have the personnel pool for a dedicated and effective search and rescue operation. These operators usually work for minimum when on standby and charge the recipients of their services. They also operate a sideline hauling stuff to and from orbit.
     Many Jovian outposts and market areas hire an SAR ship and crew as refueling can always go horribly wrong or will gift a freelance ship fuel to make sure it sticks around just because its a draw.
     Some (nearly all) SAR operators double as salvage operations because sometimes they don't make it in time.

     Seeker class ships are often bought by entire clans or a single crew that made a huge strike. But sometimes banks will allow a Seeker to be mortgaged. Due to the risk the loans are usually made by local banks in the same belt because not supporting the locals can be very bad for your business. Nevertheless various waivers have to be signed that allow the bank first crack at the estate of any deceased crew. Read the fine print if you're a family man/woman/other.

     Universities often send expeditions to points of interest. When they don't have any expeditions out they have no use for a starship. Chartering ships for research is fairly common and a captain with academic connections will find a number of colleges ready to charter him. He can also haul cargo between charters. Free traders are usually the ship of choice for this business as the high cargo capacity and passenger capacity is desired.

     Luxury Charter
     People used to travel often forget there are beautiful sights in space and amazing opportunities to experience: low gravity skiing on a gas giant's frozen moon, skimming a planet's rings, re-entry parachuting are just a few. The people who can afford this will want accommodations making high passage look like a smelly surplus spacesuit. All this costs credits. Luxury ships may seldom if ever leave their home system (chosen for surplus cash and beautiful stellar bodies).

     This sort of operation is set up quite often in war zones. If your shipping is already being shot at sending out armed vessels insures the investment. As a business privateers usually avoid tangling with warships and can be operated with acceptable levels of risk. The problem is making sure the ship owner does not skip or turn pirate. On the bright side a privateer can find constant employment in a war escorting other mortgaged ships for the bank!


One of the most overlooked aspects of space travel in science fiction settings is infrastructure. Space travel today is barely begun and is almost impossibly hard. The only way our first voyages have succeeded is with a lot of people on the ground working incredibly hard. In the future new propulsion systems and engineering techniques will make it easier but I sincerely doubt it will ever be easy. It will require a lot of time, energy and skills compared to most other human endeavors (except possibly terraforming and kicking coffee).

Say we have something like the Traveller maneuver drives: you put your power in one end and your ship moves to the other end sort of. No deadly rocket blast necessary. No one needs a spaceport, right?


First of all antigravity (or whatever handwavium you use) is expensive. A Scout ship alone costs 36 Mega-Credits (Mcr). Its routine maintenance is 36,000 credits a year and that is not figuring in life support, wages, fuel, supplies, and non-routine costs like repairs or ordinance. For a comparison, in Classic Traveller high living (great food, swank accommodations, lighting your cigarettes with credit notes) costs about 900 cr. a month. A credit buys a lot.

In a setting like this earning money to keep your ship flying is a major concern (let alone paying a gorram mortgage). This has two effects: time is going to be precious, ships are going to try to cut expenses.

Time is precious because you need time to do whatever it is to pay the bills. In the example above your courier could wind up costing you say, 6000 cr. a month. That's two hundred a day so you don't want to waste any of it sitting around repairing a busted strut or Johnston rod.

As expensive as ships are they could be even more expensive. So manufacturers will try to cut costs where they can. That means anything not devoted to maintaining life and getting from point A to point B will be made as cheaply as possible, like landing gear. So you are going to want a more or less level stretch of concrete to land on, otherwise you waste time fixing your struts and rods and such.

Saving money by optimizing your ship for vacuum work could save you a bundle. In Cepheus Engine game streamlining costs 100,000 credits per ton. That doubles the price of some hulls, an important fact if you are paying for your ship. Not everyone steals their ship — but even in that case, you need a paint and body shop to alter it and someone to forge legit seeming credentials for it.

Yes pirates/smugglers/slavers have their own infrastructure. Their ships need frequent repairs as most merchants will fire at least one shot to make things look good for the insurance company. Sometimes they panic and actually hit the pirate!

In that case they need repair facilities for their prize ship as well. Pirates have to make things look good too.

Maintenance was mentioned. Annual maintenance comes up way faster than anyone expects or wants. It requires a dock or shipyard or whatever to allow major overhaul of ship systems. Presumably you could do this in the wild but you'd be looking at longer times and an overworked engineering gang at the end of it.

But say you don't want to waste time and put wear and tear on landing, just drop your cargo off in an orbital station and pay for a shuttle to ferry it down. Except shuttles need infrastructure, landing fields, fuel and re-mass storage. Stations need maintenance. It's all infrastructure.

I haven't even touched on ship construction but you get the idea (that may turn up in another post).

Maneuver drives are fairly expensive and considering that cost, worlds might find it useful to develop other ways to transport loads to and from orbit. A maneuver drive ship is an all purpose spacecraft (that's an oxymoron at our present stage of development by the way). Ships dedicated to lifting cargos or orbital transports can be specialized to reduce some of those costs. They don't necessarily need antigravity. Laser launch vehicles, reusable chemical rockets, orbital towers and space bolos are all being discussed and planned now. Give them a few tech levels and they might give an antigravity device a run for its money (no pun intended) for simplicity and economy.

If you are using hard-science style torch-ships, infrastructure becomes even more important or your planet becomes instantly recognizable. It's the one with the large scorched areas and the Bladerunner-esque yellow fog. Player characters are not the only people you don't want to give a 100 terawatt fusion drive to.

In fact antigravity technology might revolutionize infrastructure instead of replacing it. The previous tech level you used mass drivers to shoot cargo into orbit, now you use MFTN (Middle Finger to Newton) driver to smoothly loft shuttles and bulk cargo containers. But don't forget, antigravity devices need support systems too.


What happens after your characters (whatever your SF RPG system of choice) break the law? The usual answer is 'we lift ship asap!'

That's a very good strategy but again let's see what happens.

Let's say you break the law and buy a ticket to a planet one parsec away, one not regularly visited by the planet you just cuckolded. That means it will cost that planet's government at three (passenger starship) tickets to bring you back for trial (sheriff ships out to get you, sheriff ships you and himself back to original planet for trial). In Cepheus Engine this means 26,000 credits. Why yes you are paying for high passage. No one is going to want to share a cabin with a captured fugitive, though the sheriff can fly middle passage.

Low passage is a distinct possibility (for the prisoner at least). But losing a prisoner to sleeping sickness and then finding out he was innocent (or presumed innocent from the start as some cultures believe) might be regarded as a violation of rights. So you'd probably have to go with high passage for the person of interest.

That 26,000 cr. means some crimes are plain going to be forgotten. Assault, breaking and entering, theft etc. The exact details will vary by world. Capital crimes would probably have a higher reasonable cost associated with them.

I am purposely leaving piracy out of this post. Piracy falls under the Navy's aegis. They have plenty of bucks, have to spend their budget and are happy to chase you to the Galactic Rim and points beyond.

Even if it is a matter of murder say, how far will a planet pursue a fleeing suspect? Was the victim anyone important? Are there extradition treaties with his probable destination. Are there other suspects and how likely is this person to be convicted if he is brought back? You can't put a price tag on justice but that's what people do.

If you have communication limited to actual travel it gets even harder. In Cepheus Engine terms you would need at least a Jump 3 ship to outpace the faster civilian ships which means a bottom tier warship in most settings is zipping around dropping off wanted posters. Make that several ships, just to circulate wanted posters. But what then? Are the police of other planets or starport security going to concern themselves with your case? Probably not unless there is also a (fat) reward included. And transportation guaranteed.

Enter the bounty hunter.

Bounty hunters hang around starports and wait for those wanted posters to come in. they read them with great interest. A starport has no laws against packing heavy  firepower and they usually do so. They snoop around and buy a lot of drinks and if they play their cards right, they catch a fugitive. What then?

Some planets have extradition procedures with their neighbors. If the crime doesn't warrant the cost of a passage back, then Planet A could try the fugitive under the laws of the Planet B and impose punishment under that planet's penal code. In exchange the Planet B will treat felons from Planet A it captures similarly.

Sometimes a felon will jump bail or be found guilty and still escape imprisonment. In this case Planet A would imprison the fugitive to serve time there.

There are some people, however, that Planet A would want no part of no matter how buddy buddy they are with Planet B. There are some people Planet B wants back. In that case a subsidized merchant comes in handy. Subsidized merchants get funding from the government to provide necessary commerce to worlds. While sending a warship to transport a prisoner is pretty expensive a subsidized merchant could be pressed into service. The Navy pays part of the ticket(s) to transport, Planet B pays the rest. Everyone is happy (except the crew that have a dangerous criminal onboard).

Detached Scout service couriers are great for this. They can be called back to service for almost any reason and a prisoner run is one of those. They usually fit the cargo hold out for the prisoner (meaning a mat and several buckets) and lock the door. With no mortgage and fuel provided by servce bases or skimmed for free they can easily cut costs on transportation. Besides those guys seem to enjoy that sort of thing.

Some couriers even adopted a business model, transferring crooks between the planets of a cluster. From there it's a small step to turning bounty hunter and bringing the bad guys in themselves. A reward is a reward after all.


      The minimal power managed barely a quarter standard gravity. Beagley ignored the ladder and just dropped the three meters, he covered them as they descended feeling a little silly, a former bureaucrat and money handler playing cops and robbers. He was still glad of the shotgun in his gloved hands. That was why he only jumped a little when the others lit behind him.
     The crew deck had a much more up to date entertainment center and newer carpet than their own ship, Sandoval noticed. The media screen had a golden trefoil on a red background showing.

     Thanks for sharing,” Skipper said walking over to the screen’s console. There should be a remote but like all other remotes it was uncannily good at hiding when you really wanted it. Skipper found a hotkey and hit it.
     Don’t hit nothing marked destruct,” Beagley said still looking about. “There’s clutter, dishes, knick knacks around. They didn’t stow for liftoff or ftl insertion … they left in a hurry.”
     Unless they’re still here,” Skipper answered. She was immediately sorry. None of them wanted to move to the bridge yet.
     How’s your stomach babe?” Sandoval asked trying to change the topic.
     “Fine … total terror puts a little nausea in its place fast,” Beagley muttered. Skipper couldn't get the hot key to work. Finally remembering her suit glove had a special patch to work a touch screen belatedly, she uncovered one finger tip and pressed.

     A ship’s officer looked out at them from his bridge station. He had the star and sextant badge of a navigator. The crispness of his uniform, the depth of focus, all told Skipper this was an AI. Of course the name badge on its chest with a banking logo did too.
     “Greetings! If you salvaged this ship my employers will gladly reimburse you five percent of its current value after deductions for breakage, depreciation, taxes and outstanding fines and transfer fees!”
     “Your masters are all heart. What happened to the crew?” Beagley asked.

     The AI hesitated.

If you think your merchants and traders have a hard time making their ship payments, ask a banker about finding a ship once the captain decides to skip. Banks are in the position of floating loans to people who can flee at hundreds of times the speed of light. Of curse the bounty hunters and repo men get all the media treatments but they are really a last resort and do not in fact deter skipping captains very much. Most of the skipping is deterred by precautions.

Vetting: a thorough background check on loan applicants is the first step. Fingerprinting, retina scans, DNA profiling and other scans are taken to establish identity and add to a central law enforcement database (Loan Applicant: You ain't sticking that thing in my mouth. Bank Examiner: It don't go in your MOUTH!) In addition to having an identity banks lean towards granting loans to people with other business, family ties or better yet property (that can be seized) on the branch's world.

Business Plans: you should have one of your own, but some banks will help you tweak it or help with networking. Believe it or not they want you to succeed and keep paying them.

Snitches: if this is your first ship, despite vetting you will most likely have a crewman making a little extra on the side. He basically reports any dirty dealing to the banks heading off any attempts to skip (in exchange for a fat bonus).

Security keys: the more benign form of this is a hidden security program (often part of the anti-hijacking program). Every time you make a loan payment the bank transmits a code to your ship and everyone is happy. Miss a payment and the computer will have all manner of responses: denying entry to the ship, transmitting a distress call (the captain and crew's pin numbers etc). Some more tight fisted banks may load a full artificial intelligence on your ship designed to incapacitate crew and take the ship back to a branch office — more or less. Course data may need updating and you are dealing with accountants and not navigators.

Other less savory institutions may let their AI employ less humane means to coerce a crew into obedience. These range from blasting horrific music from hidden and armored speakers to opening airlocks, shutting airlocks and repeating as necessary.


      Sergeant Cutter and his band have just arrived at Regina. After their latest venture, they have enough money pooled together to make the down payment on that ship they've been dreaming of.
     The bank is contacted and the construction begins. Months later an excited crew boards its new home and shuttles out of orbit. They spend several months trading along the established routes, making sure the payments are promptly made each month. Then, when cutter is certain the bank 's suspicions are allayed, he gives the order to skip. The plan is to leave Regina subsector far behind, along with the bank and its cumbersome payments.
     The Bank of Regina gets burned again, or does it? Obviously, a bank which finances the construction of ships costing into the billions of credits has methods of preventing (or at least discouraging) such acts and of bringing the perpetrators to justice. Banks finance ships knowing the risks involved, and they do everything possible to push the odds over into their favor.
     The following is a method of dealing with skipping as it is handled in my campaign, as well as a possible new source of income and adventure for players.


     Whether your campaign has an independent bank on each world, a subsector or sector wide organization with branch banks on each world, or a master bank with a central headquarters and numerous branches, it is not illogical to assume that banks will cooperate to reduce losses. This will most likely take the form of an information sharing network among all banks in a given empire or at least within a sector. Banks would need information on a client's credit rating to efficiently screen bad risks. Such a system can be assumed to be in effect within the Imperium, and within the other interstellar empires of the Traveller universe. There is a very good possibility that information is shared between empires, under normal conditions.
     Given this system, characters who make a bad record for themselves in one region will find their record following them throughout their travels. The ways of getting around this (forged ID documents, shell companies. assumed names, etc.) are all imperfect, and involve some degree of risk. Buying a ship and getting around the system can be a major challenge to a group of adventurers, and can provide months of pleasurable gaming sessions.


     Banks take very direct steps to prevent clients from skipping out before their loan is repaid. The simplest way, and in the long run, the cheapest, is to screen out unfavorable clients beforehand. Before the loan is finalized. a credit check and background review will be conducted. If these reveal no problems, and the client shows an ability to repay the loan it will be approved. These checks will vary from exhaustive research for new clients to rather token searches for well established clients or large property owners with deep roots in the region concerned.
     Credit: Banks will know of bad credit characters have established with other banks, unless that information could not reasonably have reached the bank at that time or the players have taken measures (such as false names, bribes, etc.) to prevent it. In general, banks send out information on skippers or delinquent payments as soon as such status is realized. Inside the Imperium, information reaches other banks in rough correlation with the x-boat system.
     Collateral: A bank will often demand that a client put up property to act as security for a loan. Though it is rarely enough to cover the price of a ship, it has been found to have some deterrent effect.
     Background Review: Banks will study the client's travelling and business habits. Specifically, they will look for criminal records, a tendency to fail in business ventures, and any involvement with organizations which the bank considers questionable. If there is any doubt about the character's background, it is very likely that the loan will be denied.
     Intended use: Banks place a great deal of weight on the use to which the ship will be put. Possible use of a ship in a risky venture will be cause for the bank to deny the loan, but stable ventures with low profit margins wtll not look very promising either.
     Most banks are reluctant to completely trust some clients with the several million credits involved in building a ship. even though no flaws in the client's background can be discovered. In cases like these, some banks have been known to take additional measures to secure the bank's investment. A timer may be built into a ship's computer so that the computer will cease functioning if it is not reset by a bank official each month after the payment is tendered. The timer, of course, is removed when the payments are completed. Most banks, however, find it simpler to deny the loan application in the first place.


     Despite all the measures bank's take to deter skipping, a clever group will occasionally slip past the safeguards, or an honest group will succumb to temptation. This is where the repos come in.
     Repos are people who pursue and retrieve ships and crews who have skipped. The term is descended from the word "repossession". Occasionally, a repo will be hired to retrieve other stolen property.
     There are basically two types of repos, those who work for a bank or other financial institution and the independents (who work for themselves).
     Company repos receive a salary (generally Cr50,000 per year) plus a bonus of 2% of the value of the recovered ship. Their employer pays their expenses. They have access to their firm's information network, and can usually count on the cooperation of local financial institutions and police.
     Independents have no financial backing, and generally charge expenses plus 2-5% of the value of the recovered vessel. If some or all of the crew are wanted for other crimes, the repo can collect all of any reward for their apprehension.


     An individual wishing to become a repo usually starts by consulting the current Shipping Registry in any large library at A and B starports. The delinquent section lists all ships in the subsector posted delinquent by a financial institution, their last known location, the ship's description and transponder codes, the names of the crew, the value of the vessel, and the institution seeking repossession. Most of these ships are probably being sought by company employees, but there is always a chance that an independent can beat them to it.
     An individual with connections can have access to the " scorched list." This is a list of vessels whose crews have killed one or more repos. These ships often have recovery fees of up to 10% of the ship's value. These vessels are also being sought by law enforcement authorities, who have a low opinion of repos in general and independents in particular. Seeking vessels on the scorched list often involves considerable risk.
     Legal Aspects: Legally, company repos are employees of the financial institution holding title to a skipped vessel, and are allowed to take direct possession. Independents are (from a legal standpoint) ordinary citizens reclaiming another's stolen property, and must immediately turn the ship over to the local authorities. Repos are allowed to use reasonable force to take possession of a skipped vessel. and may defend themselves if attacked. but they are all subject to the murder statutes (even in the case of ships from the scorched list, although judges are often lenient in such cases).
     If a ship's cargo belongs to the crew of the skipped vessel, it becomes the property of the financial institution holding the note on the ship. If it belongs to a party unconnected with the skipped vessel (if it has been stolen, or is a contracted cargo), it remains their property.
     Repos are not law enforcement officers, and cannot call for assistance from law enforcement agencies. They have no rights over and above ordinary citizens, except for the few they gain if they are employed by the company holding the note on the vessel. They are subject to criminal prosecution for any laws they break in pursuit of a skipped vessel.
     Tracking Skips: Tracking is not following physical tracks through space, but the skillful use of available information combined with intuition. An experienced repo will look at the background review conducted by the bank (available automatically if a company repo) to see if there are are any specific regions the crew frequents, any preferred business ventures, travel patterns, and so on. Because of the large number of variables, it is impossible to give specific rules for tracking a stolen ship in the space available, so individual referees will have to determine the results according to the situation.


     Banks and other financial institutions are not suckers. Players who skip out on their payments should spend the rest of their career looking over their shoulder (after all, nobody said life was going to be easy ).
     Repos should add flavor to any campaign, whether as a new way of making money, or as another thing for your players to worry about as they travel the universe.

The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 16 (1983)

(ed note: this situation is happening to terrestrial sea-going freighters. But this could easily happen in a science fiction future with starship freighters, resulting in a very entertaining background for a science fiction writer to use.)

With South Korea's biggest shipping company filing for bankruptcy protection, the vessels, sailors and cargo of Hanjin Shipping are stuck in limbo, stranded at sea.

     Ports, fearing they will not get paid, refuse to let them dock or unload.
     That means the ships are forced to wait for Hanjin, its creditors or partners to find a solution.
     It's a case of unprecedented scale, with experts expecting the deadlock to last for weeks, if not months.
     "[It is] a major disaster for the shipping companies and for the companies that own the goods in those containers," Greg Knowler, maritime and trade analyst with IHS Markit, told the BBC from Hong Kong.


     Not only are ships not allowed to unload, containers waiting to be picked up are also being held back by the ports as collateral over unpaid bills.
     And even if the ports did allow them in, Hanjin would probably not as the vessels could expect to be immediately repossessed by the firm's creditors.
     Beyond the ships and containers, there is of course the cargo within those containers — in many cases part of a tight chain of supply and delivery. (Just-in-time manufacturing)
     By September, the global shipping industry is already into what is its busiest time of the year ahead of the Christmas season.
     "Just imagine, there are some 540,000 containers with cargo caught up at sea," explains Lars Jensen, chief executive of Sea Intelligence Consulting in Copenhagen.
     That means that a lot of the goods en route to the US are geared at the busy year-end holidays and any disruption will be a major headache for the companies that have entrusted their products into the hauls of the Hanjin freighters.


     Let's break down the somewhat confusing ownership structure at play here.
     Hanjin operates partly with its own ships, and partly with vessels it leases from others. So some of the vessels stuck at sea are owned by other companies who now can't get them back and on top of that have to assume they won't get paid for leasing them in the first place.
     The containers on board the ships are also not all Hanjin's own. As the company is part of an alliance with five other cargo firms, there will be a mix of containers on each vessel — some belonging to Hanjin, the rest to the other four partners.
     And lastly, there are the firms who own the content of the containers, for instance an Asian electronics firm sending its goods to the US market.
     Hanjin's bankruptcy is the largest ever to hit the shipping industry so there's no roadmap as to what will happen now, no precedent of comparable scale.


     There are the containers stuck at ports.
     Let's take a container brought from, say, the Philippines to Hong Kong, to then be picked up from there and taken to the US.
     Berthing and handling of that cargo at the Hong Kong port costs money. If Hanjin can't pay that, the port will hold on to those containers as collateral until someone will be willing to pay.
     A possible solution would be that the companies who own the contents of those containers ask other shipping companies to step in and pick up where Hanjin left off. The cost of this would be immense, and would come on top of anything they had already paid to Hanjin beforehand. Part of it might be covered by insurance but it would still be an extremely costly endeavour.


     The containers stuck on board the ships are the next problem. While at sea, there is no way to get the cargo off board.
     Ships that are only leased by Hanjin could see their actual owner take back control and bring them into a harbour. They would still need to be cleared of their cargo but could then be leased to other companies.
     Given that the owners of any leased vessels would probably not want to foot the bill themselves they may try to draft in the four partner lines that have containers on the ship or maybe even the companies whose cargo is inside those containers.
     The ships owned by Hanjin itself would most likely have to be sold before anyone would bring in the money to get them into a port and cleared. The fact that they would have to be sold as is, i.e. at sea, and with a load of overdue containers on board would probably weigh down the price of the vessels.


     Each stranded ship has about 15 to 25 crew on board. Unable to call at any port, they will have to depend on the supplies they have with them until a solution can be found. While food should last long enough, they will eventually need fuel.
     In a worst-case scenario, should they find themselves unable to pay for fuel being delivered by a shuttle, they would risk running into serious trouble. In that case though, nearby ports would likely be forced to accept them.
     Aside from the prospect of being stuck for weeks at sea, the sailors will also face uncertainly over their wages. Most of them are not actually hired by Hanjin but by crewing agencies. Those agencies are unlikely to get paid by Hanjin and therefore won't be able to pay the crews.
     "Unless someone steps in very quickly — and there is no sign of that — this will last a very long time," according to Mr Jensen.
     Ships, cargo and crew might find themselves stuck for weeks, if not months, without knowing when and where their current voyage will end.

Ship Market Disruption

Like any other industry, the spacecraft trade and transport industry is subject to the dreaded spectre of Disruption. Current day examples of technological disruption include how internet delivered news is destroying the printed newspaper industry, how Uber is destroying the taxi industry, how Amazon is destroying the brick-and-mortar dead-tree bookstore industry, and how the advent of self-driving trucks could inflict five million truckers with technological unemployment. Not to mention self-driving automobiles.

This is good from the perspective of a science fiction author. Utopias are boring, but times of massive disruption create lots of angry people and angry people can drive exciting plots for a novel.

As a worked example I mentioned how clusters of boom-towns around orbital propellant depots could suddenly become ghost towns when technologically disrupted by the advent of commercial nuclear rockets, establishment of a laser thermal network, or the like.

More simply, the page about Calculating History shows how the sudden availability of a commercial rocket engine with improved specific impulse can change what trading/transport mission are commercial viable (or even possible). Ship captains stuck with the old obsolete rocket engine are at a severe competitive disadvantage. Plenty of pathos and anger will be created, all grist for the science fiction author's mill.

On the flip side, if a new piece of technology threatens a megacorporation with disruption (or even extinction), you can rest assured they will not go quietly into the night. They will use every means at their disposal to neutralize the threat. Which can make life very exciting for the researchers developing said technology, as they flee for their lives from corporate assassins determined to silence them. This is also grist for the science fiction author's mill.


(ed note: in the story, older ships use ion-drives powered by fusion reactors. They have been rendered obsolete by the "blowtorches", which are apparently some kind of fusion torchship. The ship costs and other details have been invented out of thin air by the author, but they were fined tuned to create the economic trap that has ensnared poor Captain Zeke. The main point being that the newer ships are vastly cheaper.)

Zeke watched the red light on the panel fade, then listened to the chatter of the relays as the ship searched its way back to its course. The pip on the screen had disappeared into the background of snow that the anti-noise circuits could no longer blank, even this far from the sun. He dropped his eyes to his hands that lay on the board, staring bitterly at the knuckles that were swollen with arthritis and covered with coarse hairs that had begun to turn grey.

Behind him, he heard Mary sigh softly. “Those blamed blowtorches," she said, but her voice was as tired as he felt, and the old anger at the smaller, direct drive ships was almost automatic. "He might look where he's going."

If their boy had lived, things might have been different. Zeke sighed and got up, heading back for his regular tour of inspection before tea. He passed the three other empty seats in the control room. Bates had died on Venus, Levitchoffsky had sold out to join a blowtorch company, and Ngambu had gasped out his life from a sudden stroke only three years before, leaving the Midas entirely to Zeke.

He went back through the empty crew quarters, past the equally empty passenger rooms, and through the holds with their small load of freight, until he came to the great engine that drove the Midas. There, for the first time that day, he relaxed. Elsewhere, the bright-work had long since dulled, but the huge fusion converter was the one thing he never neglected. It purred on smoothly, turning a trickle of the hydrogen in ordinary water into huge floods of power, and it gleamed under his approving glance. They weren't building engines like that any more—not since the blowtorches had taken over. A complete blowtorch weighed less than the seven thousand tons of power equipment the Midas carried. It had been constructed when spaceships were so tremendously expensive that their engines were designed to last almost forever. The ship could fall to pieces around it, or he could be forgotten for generations before it began to fail.

Then the satisfaction passed. Even the engine had one weakness—it needed someone to feed it and to give it the minimum care. Once he was gone, the engine would die with him. With the blowtorches controlling the space lanes, nobody would be interested in an old ship, no matter how well the engine could convert hydrogen to power for the great ion blasters to hurl out in driving force.

Reluctantly, Zeke turned from the engine room and on back toward the complexities of the driving tubes. He moved slowly now, putting it off as long as he could. The blast that had been wasted in trying to avoid the blowtorch had been too strong; somewhere, some part of the controls had mis-functioned. Now…

It could have been worse. The drivers were still functioning, at least. But the imbalance that had been creeping up was worse. The strain of the needless correction had crippled them more than a year of normal use could have done.

Zeke moved about, avoiding enormous bus bars and giant electronic parts in the huge but crowded section out of old habit. He could make up for the damage to some extent, by inhibiting the less worn sections. But it was only a temporary expedient. The Midas was long since overdue for dry-docking and repairs. It could no longer be delayed.

(ed note: Zeke goes to the office of the company he had a contract with to see about renewing the contract. The new president gives him an envelope.)

     He passed over an envelope. Zeke fingered it open, staring at the cheques. Then his eyes snapped back to Hathaway.
     “Termination? But—”
     Hathaway looked more uncomfortable, but he nodded. “ Unfortunately, we can't renew the contract, Captain Vaughn."
     “But Williams told me…"
     “I know. And I'm sure he meant to keep you under contract as long as you were in business (but CEO Williams died of old age a few years back). I don't know whether he ever told you, but he served for a year on one of the old ion-drive passenger liners, and he was quite sentimental about all ion-drive ships. He had contracts with five, in fact, at one time—though the other four have all been retired. But he had a constant fight with the stockholders over it. As a new president of the company, Captain Vaughn, I don't have the authority that he had."
     “ I don't get it," Zeke said. The man was practically telling him he’d been a charity case. And that made no sense. “I charged less than the blowtorches! And freight rates went up last year, too."
     Hathaway looked like a man caught beating a dog. His voice was unhappy, but there was no uncertainty in it. “That's part of the reason. When the rates went up, Hermes Freight offered us a contract at the old rate, in return for exclusive rights. And since that represents an annual saving of several million dollars to us, we couldn't turn it down. l’m sorry, Captain Vaughn, but it was out of my hands.”

The Midas loomed up huge among the smaller blowtorches there. They had never succeeded in building a blowtorch drive larger than the original, and the problem of phasing more than one such drive had kept them from multiple drive. Originally, the small ships had contained less than half the cargo space of the Midas, though they'd stepped up the efficiency until it was now about the same.

When the direct conversion of a tiny, intermittent fusion blast to propulsive drive had been invented, the spacemen had laughed at the ships designed for it. They had seemed little more than toys. And the inability to increase their power beyond certain limits had already been recognised. Obviously, with a few more improvements in the reliable, proven ion-drive and fusion motors, the tiny bloworches would never have a chance.

Spacemen, Zeke now knew, had been right in everything but their knowledge of economics. The big power generating motors and the ion-drive could have been improved, and ships far better than the maximum for the blowtorches could have been built. But they never were. A ship like the Midas had cost over twenty million dollars to build. The huge motor alone had cost sixty percent of that. And for the same money, forty of the direct-drive ships could be completed.

In every way except one, the ion-drive was more efficient. But that one way was the determinant. It wasn’t economically efficient to tie up twenty million dollars and its interest when two blowtorches would yield the same return for a single million! The ship companies stopped contracting for ion-blast ships, and the progress that could have been made still remained only a possibility.

For a while, during the brief trouble between Mars and Earth, when it seemed interplanetary war might occur, Earth had suddenly grown interested in the big ships again. The government had bought them up, planning to arm them. Then the scare had blown over, and they were dumped onto the surplus market, since no freight company was still equipped to use them. Bates and Levitchoffsky had scraped up the price of one, taking Zeke in as engineer and Ngambu as pilot with equal shares for their skills. A lot of spacemen had done the same.

But that had been forty years ago, and now apparently the Midas was the last of the old ships. Zeke had seen some of the others, scrapped on the outer planets, or blown up because the old engineers died or quit; they weren't training men now to service the big motors properly.

Callisto had been an outpost then, the point beyond which the big companies and the blowtorches didn’t go. Zeke and men like him had built the outplanet colonies; when the blowtorches quit, ships like the Midas had been the lifeline for all beyond Jupiter. Even now, there was a copy of a picture of the Midas on the planet seal of Neptune. And kids had wanted to grow up to handle such ships. They hadn't been able to land without a bunch of kids—and grown-up kids, too—streaming out to admire them, and to ask to go inside, to gasp in awe at the engines.

Now to greet him there was only the estimator from the repair company Zeke had consulted on landing. He was standing doubtfully in the main lock, and he swung quickly as Zeke came in.

“Oh, hi, Captain Vaughn. I was just coming to look you up. How soon would you want her rebuilt?"

Zeke frowned. It was a foolish question, but it apparently wasn't meant for a joke. “As soon as possible, naturally. But—well, how much—"

“Impossible!” Now the estimator seemed to think Zeke was being foolish He grinned doubtfully. “We don't keep stuff here to fabricate all this. In fact, you’re lucky we've got a man who can handle the job. No other company this side of Earth would touch it. We'll have to send to Mars for scrap parts for some of it, and maybe get other parts specially tooled at Detroit. Look, you sure you want her drydocked?”

“How much ?“ Zeke asked again.

The man shrugged. “I haven't the foggiest notion. It’d take three months to get estimates on the parts. In round numbers, maybe a million dollars for parts, plus shipping and labour, if you want a complete overhaul. A quarter of that just to work on what you’ve got wrong with the drivers, if we disregard minor defects. Your engine looks sound. And you might get by a few more years on the controls. You sick?”

Zeke shook his hand off. He‘d been foolish to think it could be done for what he had. With a bitter grin at himself, he took out his bank book and passed it over.

The estimator whistled.

“That‘s it," Zeke told him.

“Umm." The other stared at the older man, and then shrugged “ All right, l’ll level with you, Captain Vaughn. I was padding it—I like a fat commission as well as the next. But I wasn’t padding it that much. Not by a tenth!" He pulled at one ear lobe, staring about at the ship. Then he shrugged.

“Maybe there's something we can do, though," he suggested at last. "We've got a few old parts, and we can jury-rig a little more. For twenty-five thousand, we can retune those drivers enough for you to pass take-off inspection here. Hell, since I'm one of the inspectors, I'll guarantee that. Take us maybe two weeks. Then you can take the ship across to Venus. They're short of metal and paying top scrap prices. You could probably get enough for this outfit to pick up a fairly good used blowtorch, or to retire on. They jury-rigged a couple of scrapped ion blasters on Earth and crawled across with them recently, so there must be a good price there. How’s it sound ?"

Zeke brought a trembling hand up to a big wrench on the wall. “Get off!" His voice was thick in his ears. “Get off my ship, damn you !"

“What the heck gives ?" The inspector took a backward step, more as if humouring Zeke than in fear. “Look, I'm trying to help you. You crazy, Captain ?"

The brief anger ebbed back into the general dullness, and Zeke let his arm drop limply. He nodded. "I don't know. Maybe I am. I must be, landing on Callisto without finding out ahead of time they had take-off inspection now. All right, fix her up."

There was nothing else he could do, of course. It would leave him enough to buy supplies, at least. And fuel was no problem—he‘d learned places to find frozen water years before, and the fuel tanks were nearly full.

But with the contract with Saturanus ended, getting freight enough to keep going was going to be tough. If the Midas had been in top condition, he could probably get a fat contract for the new mines on Pluto, since it was hard to get blowtorch pilots who would stick to the long haul so far from any recreation. But the mines wouldn't risk their ultra-precious ores without a full inspection of the ship. They'd turned him down five years ago. Now it was out of the question.

(ed note: as a side note, the story does have a sort of happy ending)

From THE STILL WATERS by Lester del Rey (1955)


Corporations are large companies that legally considered to be a person. In science fiction a megacorporation is a corporation so huge it has more power than your average nation, or even an entire planet.


A corporation is a company or group of people authorized to act as a single entity (legally a person) and recognized as such in law. Early incorporated entities were established by charter (i.e. by an ad hoc act granted by a monarch or passed by a parliament or legislature). Most jurisdictions now allow the creation of new corporations through registration.

Corporations come in many different types but are usually divided by the law of the jurisdiction where they are chartered into two kinds: by whether or not they can issue stock, or by whether or not they are for profit.

Where local law distinguishes corporations by ability to issue stock, corporations allowed to do so are referred to as "stock corporations", ownership of the corporation is through stock, and owners of stock are referred to as "stockholders." Corporations not allowed to issue stock are referred to as "non-stock" corporations, those who are considered the owners of the corporation are those who have obtained membership in the corporation, and are referred to as a "member" of the corporation.

Corporations chartered in regions where they are distinguished by whether they are allowed to be for profit or not are referred to as "for profit" and "not-for-profit" corporations, respectively.

There is some overlap between stock/non-stock and for profit/not-for-profit in that not-for-profit corporations are always non-stock as well. A for profit corporation is almost always a stock corporation, but some for profit corporations may choose to be non-stock. To simplify the explanation, whenever "stockholder" is used in the rest of this article to refer to a stock corporation, it is presumed to mean the same as "member" for a non-profit corporation or for profit, non-stock corporation.

Registered corporations have legal personality and are owned by shareholders whose liability is limited to their investment. Shareholders do not typically actively manage a corporation; shareholders instead elect or appoint a board of directors to control the corporation in a fiduciary capacity.

In American English the word corporation is most often used to describe large business corporations. In British English and in the Commonwealth countries, the term company is more widely used to describe the same sort of entity while the word corporation encompasses all incorporated entities. In American English, the word company can include entities such as partnerships that would not be referred to as companies in British English as they are not a separate legal entity.

Despite not being human beings, corporations, as far as the law is concerned, are legal persons, and have many of the same rights and responsibilities as natural persons do. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations. Corporations can be "dissolved" either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate failure, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order, but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter. However corporations are not considered living entities in the way that humans are.

From the Wikipedia entry for CORPORATION

Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...

The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.

Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.

For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

From INVADERS FROM MARS by Charles Stross (2010)

Millions of organizations do business within and without the Imperium.

  • Most of these are limited to one or two worlds.
  • A few thousand trade over one or more subsectors, a few hundred cover one or more sectors.
  • Only a few firms are truly Imperial in scope; these are known as Megacorporations.


Staggering in size, these organizations are so large that no one person can know everything they are concerned with at any given moment. Total shares of stock, annual profits, number of employees are all astronomical. Many organizations are so large that different divisions of the same megacorporation may actually be working at cross purposes. In most regions, megacorporations merely own the land their installations are on, but in some areas they control entire planets, either directly or indirectly.

Governance & Organization

Most Megacorporations use a hegemonic form (power structure) of governance.

  • They are sometimes called "corporate technocracies" and use an oligarchic power source, generally composed of a board of directors. Exceptions to the generality do exist.
  • Most megacorporations are organized very much like smaller companies, with a board of directors, a president, and vice presidents).
  • However, the board and the higher-level executive officers of the company are largely out of contact with the day-to-day (or even year-to-year) functioning of the company.
  • These upper level executives serve to plan general policy and long-distance actions.
  • The most important executives, in terms of personal power, are the various regional managers, by whatever title they have assumed.
  • A regional manager may control only a small portion of a megacorporation's total assets, but many hold more power in some regions than the representatives of the Imperial government.


A small number of Imperial regulatory agencies have power over megacorporations, and they are subject to any applicable local taxes, but, provided they do not blatantly violate Imperial sovereignty, regional managers can usually conduct their company's business as they see fit.

  • Because a direct confrontation with the Imperium would be bad for business, intentional violation of Imperial laws is done only on a covert basis.
From the Traveller Wiki entry for MEGACORPORATION

(ed note: Richard Seaton and Martin Crane invented a power source that delivers electricity at a ridiculously inexpensive rate, and a faster-than-light spaceship drive. They are startled at the effect these have on the economy of Terra. Tellus=Terra. Arenak, dagal, and inoson are technobabble unreasonably strong materials.)

WHEN Seaton and Crane had begun to supply the Earth with ridiculously cheap power, they had expected an economic boom and a significant improvement in the standard of living. Neither of them had any idea, however, of the effect upon the world's economy that their space-flights would have; but many tycoons of industry did.

They were shrewd operators, those tycoons. As one man they licked their chops at the idea of interstellar passages made in days. They gloated over thoughts of the multifold increase in productive capacity that would have to be made so soon; as soon as commerce was opened up with dozens and then with hundreds of Tellus-type worlds, inhabited by human beings as human as those of Earth. And when they envisioned hundreds and hundreds of uninhabited Tellus-type worlds, each begging to be grabbed and exploited by whoever got to it first with enough stuff to hold it and to develop it... they positively drooled.

These men did not think of money as money, but as their most effective and most important tool: a tool to be used as knowledgeably as the old-time lumberjack used his axe.

Thus, Earth was going through convulsions of change more revolutionary by far than any it had experienced throughout all previous history. All those pressures building up at once had blown the lid completely off. Seaton and Crane and their associates had been working fifteen hours a day for months training people in previously unimagined skills; trying to keep the literally exploding economy from degenerating into complete chaos.

They could not have done it alone, of course. In fact, it was all that a thousand Norlaminian "Observers" could do to keep the situation even approximately in hand. And even the Congress—mirabile dictu!—welcomed those aliens with open arms; for it was so hopelessly deadlocked in trying to work out any workable or enforceable laws that it was accomplishing nothing at all.

All steel mills were working at one hundred ten per cent of capacity. So were almost all other kinds of plants. Machine tools were in such demand that no estimated time of delivery could be obtained. Arenak, dagal, and inoson, those wonder-materials of the construction industry, would be in general supply some day; but that day would not be allowed to come until the changeover could be made without disrupting the entire economy. Inoson especially was confined to the spaceship builders; and, while every pretense was being made that production was being increased as fast as possible, the demand for spaceships was so insatiable that every hulk that could leave atmosphere was out in deep space.

Multi-billion-dollar corporations were springing up all over Earth. Each sought out and began to develop a Tellustype planet of its own, to bring up as a civilized planet or merely to exploit as it saw fit. Each was clamoring for and using every possible artifice of persuasion, lobbying, horse-trading, and out-and-out bribery and corruption to obtain spaceships, personnel, machinery light and heavy, office equipment, and supplies. All the employables of Earth, and many theretofore considered unemployable, were at work.

Earth was a celestial madhouse...

From SKYLARK DUQUESNE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1966)

Mega Corp.

"And when at last it is time for the transition from megacorporation to planetary government, from entrepreneur to emperor, it is then that the true genius of our strategy shall become apparent, for energy is the lifeblood of this society and when the chips are down he who controls the energy supply controls the planet. In former times the energy monopoly was called "The Power Company"; we intend to give this name an entirely new meaning."
CEO Nwabudike Morgan - "The Centauri Monopoly", Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Science Fiction, of the Dystopian and Cyberpunk sort, especially, loves its massive corporations. These corporations are usually umbrella corporations, controlling dozens of smaller companies that manufacture everything from clothing to military hardware. They can even be the police. Perhaps there is even one company that is a Privately Owned Society in its own right. This goes beyond the definition of "monopoly."

Rarely are Mega Corporations portrayed with anything other than unremitting negativism; rather than being a simple business making things that people want to buy, they are almost invariably the villains of the setting, and depicted as exploitative, oppressive and screwing the rules with their money while maintaining a Peace & Love, Incorporated façade. They are home to the Corrupt Corporate Executive, Mean Boss, Pointy-Haired Boss, and Obstructive Bureaucrat, and usually have Amoral Attorneys on the payroll.

Mega Corporations are shown to be private institutions and therefore don't have to play by most rules the government has to, such as freedom of speech, because it's always "nobody is forcing you to work for them or buy from them or use their institutions or buy their products." However, more dark versions will also show these guys pretty much buying off or eliminating their competitors, brainwashing the masses, and coming up with Evil Plans to ensure they have a monopoly and making it so that you still have to buy their products, while their employees are sometimes portrayed as oppressed, paid pitifully low wages (if at all), and treated as expendable.

They may also be shown controlling the government either through having employees in important positions or through lobbying, or taken to its extreme, may have Private Military Contractors or other Hired Guns (or even an entire country or world) at their disposal, and become Superpowers in their own right. Corporate Warfare may result if financial means are not enough to accomplish the company's goals. In shows seeking a Green Aesop a Mega Corp could also be Toxic, Inc..

A more benign version may be owned by a Rich Idiot with No Day Job. However, in Post Cyber Punk stories, some Mega Corps can aspire to be Big Good, providing the hero with amazing equipment in their quest to literally snuff out the competition. There do exist some rare benevolent portrayals of a Mega Corp; in which they merely may just be a large business which employs a lot of people but isn't shown practicing in unethical trade practices.

Monopolies, monopsonies (only one buyer of goods in the market), duopolies (only two sellers in the market), and oligopolies (only a small handful of Mega Corp entities that are selling in the market) do exist in real life, and indeed, very large multinational corporations do exist. And yes, some of these corporations do engage in unethical practices or political influence. And there are Real Life historical examples of Mega Corps acting either as a state within state or as an semi-independent political entity, such as the Hanseatic League. Of course, it is an exaggeration (at least) to claim all corporations act in this way.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


(ed note: You really should read the entire thing. And take notes.

The article traces the rise and fall of the East India Company, with historical trends and power structures that a science fiction author can easily transpose into their future histories.

EIC is the East India Company. VOC is the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie aka Dutch East India Company)

Corporation Types
Control of LandControl of Mindshare

The Smithian/Schumpeterian Divide

     The first point is that the corporate form was born in the era of Mercantilism, the economic ideology that (zero-sum) control of land is the foundation of all economic power (ed note: the idea that business should be organized around Space).
     In politics, Mercantilism led to balance-of-power models. In business, once the Age of Exploration (the 16th century) opened up the world, it led to mercantilist corporations focused on trade (if land is the source of all economic power, the only way to grow value faster than your land holdings permit, is to trade on advantageous terms).
     The forces of radical technological change — the Industrial Revolution — did not seriously kick in until after nearly 200 years of corporate evolution (1600-1800) in a mercantilist mold. Mercantilist models of economic growth map to what Joel Mokyr calls Smithian Growth, after Adam Smith
     …Smith was both the prophet of doom for the Mercantilist corporation, and the herald of what came to replace it: the Schumpeterian corporation. Mokyr characterizes the growth created by the latter as Schumpeterian growth
     The corporate form therefore spent almost 200 years — nearly half of its life to date — being shaped by Mercantilist thinking, a fundamentally zero-sum way of viewing the world…
     …In fact, in terms of the two functions that Drucker considered the only essential ones in business, marketing and innovation, the Mercantilist corporation lacked one. The archetypal Mercantilist corporation, the EIC, understood marketing intimately and managed demand and supply with extraordinary accuracy. But it did not innovate.
     Innovation was the function grafted onto the corporate form by the possibility of Schumpeterian growth, but it would take nearly an entire additional century for the function to be properly absorbed into corporations. It was not until after the American Civil War and the Gilded Age that businesses fundamentally reorganized around (as we will see) time instead of space, which led, as we will see, to a central role for ideas and therefore the innovation function.
     The Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s, the focus of the Deadwood saga, was in a way the last hurrah of Mercantilist thinking. William Randolph Hearst, the son of gold mining mogul George Hearst who took over Deadwood in the 1870s, made his name with newspapers. The baton had formally been passed from mercantilists to schumpeterians.
     This divide between the two models can be placed at around 1800, the nominal start date of the Industrial Revolution, as the ideas of Renaissance Science met the energy of coal to create a cocktail that would allow corporations to colonize time

I: Smithian Growth and the Mercantilist Economy (1600 – 1800)

     It is difficult for us in 2011, with Walmart and Facebook as examples of corporations that significantly control our lives, to understand the sheer power the East India Company exercised during its heyday. Power that makes even the most out-of-control of today’s corporations seem tame by comparison. To a large extent, the history of the first 200 years of corporate evolution is the history of the East India Company. And despite its name and nation of origin, to think of it as a corporation that helped Britain rule India is to entirely misunderstand the nature of the beast.
     Two images hint at its actual globe-straddling, 10x-Walmart influence: the image of the Boston Tea Partiers dumping crates of tea into the sea during the American struggle for independence, and the image of smoky opium dens in China. One image symbolizes the rise of a new empire. The other marks the decline of an old one.
     The East India Company supplied both the tea and the opium.
     At a broader level, the EIC managed to balance an unbalanced trade equation between Europe and Asia whose solution had eluded even the Roman empire. Massive flows of gold and silver from Europe to Asia via the Silk and Spice routes had been a given in world trade for several thousand years. Asia simply had far more to sell than it wanted to buy. Until the EIC came along
     A very rough sketch of how the EIC solved the equation reveals the structure of value-addition in the mercantilist world economy.
     The EIC started out by buying textiles from Bengal and tea from China in exchange for gold and silver.
     Then it realized it was playing the same sucker game that had trapped and helped bankrupt Rome.
     Next, it figured out that it could take control of the opium industry in Bengal, trade opium for tea in China with a significant surplus, and use the money to buy the textiles it needed in Bengal. Guns would be needed.
     As a bonus, along with its partners, it participated in yet another clever trade: textiles for slaves along the coast of Africa, who could be sold in America for gold and silver.
     For this scheme to work, three foreground things and one background thing had to happen: the corporation had to effectively take over Bengal (and eventually all of India), Hong Kong (and eventually, all of China, indirectly) and England. Robert Clive achieved the first goal by 1757. An employee of the EIC, William Jardine, founded what is today Jardine Matheson, the spinoff corporation most associated with Hong Kong and the historic opium trade. It was, during in its early history, what we would call today a narco-terrorist corporation; the Taliban today are kindergarteners in that game by comparison. And while the corporation never actually took control of the British Crown, it came close several times, by financing the government during its many troubles.
     The background development was simpler. England had to take over the oceans and ensure the safe operations of the EIC.
     Just how comprehensively did the EIC control the affairs of states? Bengal is an excellent example. In the 1600s and the first half of the 1700s, before the Industrial Revolution, Bengali textiles were the dominant note in the giant sucking sound drawing away European wealth (which was flowing from the mines and farms of the Americas). The European market, once the EIC had shoved the Dutch VOC aside, constantly demanded more and more of an increasing variety of textiles, ignoring the complaining of its own weavers. Initially, the company did no more than battle the Dutch and Portuguese on water, and negotiate agreements to set up trading posts on land. For a while, it played by the rules of the Mughal empire and its intricate system of economic control based on various imperial decrees and permissions. The Mughal system kept the business world firmly subservient to the political class, and ensured a level playing field for all traders. Bengal in the 17th and 18th centuries was a cheerful drama of Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Indians, Chinese and Europeans. Trade in the key commodities, textiles, opium, saltpeter and betel nuts, was carefully managed to keep the empire on top.
     But eventually, as the threat from the Dutch was tamed, it became clear that the company actually had more firepower at its disposal than most of the nation-states it was dealing with. The realization led to the first big domino falling, in the corporate colonization of India, at the battle of Plassey. Robert Clive along with Indian co-conspirators managed to take over Bengal, appoint a puppet Nawab, and get himself appointed as the Mughal diwan (finance minister/treasurer) of the province of Bengal, charged with tax collection and economic administration on behalf of the weakened Mughals, who were busy destroying their empire. Even people who are familiar enough with world history to recognize the name Robert Clive rarely understand the extent to which this was the act of a single sociopath within a dangerously unregulated corporation, rather than the country it was nominally subservient to (England).
     This history doesn’t really stand out in sharp relief until you contrast it with the behavior of modern corporations. Today, we listen with shock to rumors about the backroom influence of corporations like Halliburton or BP, and politicians being in bed with the business leaders in the Too-Big-to-Fail companies they are supposed to regulate.
     The EIC was the original too-big-to-fail corporation. The EIC was the beneficiary of the original Big Bailout. Before there was TARP, there was the Tea Act of 1773 and the Pitt India Act of 1783. The former was a failed attempt to rein in the EIC, which cost Britain the American Colonies. The latter created the British Raj as Britain doubled down in the east to recover from its losses in the west. An invisible thread connects the histories of India and America at this point. Lord Cornwallis, the loser at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the revolutionary war, became the second Governor General of India in 1786.
     But these events were set in motion over 30 years earlier, in the 1750s. There was no need for backroom subterfuge. It was all out in the open because the corporation was such a new beast, nobody really understood the dangers it represented. The EIC maintained an army. Its merchant ships often carried vastly more firepower than the naval ships of lesser nations. Its officers were not only not prevented from making money on the side, private trade was actually a perk of employment (it was exactly this perk that allowed William Jardine to start a rival business that took over the China trade in the EIC’s old age). And finally — the cherry on the sundae — there was nothing preventing its officers like Clive from simultaneously holding political appointments that legitimized conflicts of interest. If you thought it was bad enough that Dick Cheney used to work for Halliburton before he took office, imagine if he’d worked there while in office, with legitimate authority to use his government power to favor his corporate employer and make as much money on the side as he wanted, and call in the Army and Navy to enforce his will. That picture gives you an idea of the position Robert Clive found himself in, in 1757.
     He made out like a bandit. A full 150 years before American corporate barons earned the appellation “robber.”
     In the aftermath of Plassey, in his dual position of Mughal diwan of Bengal and representative of the EIC with permission to make money for himself and the company, and the armed power to enforce his will, Clive did exactly what you’d expect an unprincipled and enterprising adventurer to do. He killed the golden goose. He squeezed the Bengal textile industry dry for profits, destroying its sustainability. A bubble in London and a famine in Bengal later, the industry collapsed under the pressure (Bengali economist Amartya Sen would make his bones and win the Nobel two centuries later, studying such famines). With industrialization and machine-made textiles taking over in a few decades, the economy had been destroyed. But by that time the EIC had already moved on to the next opportunities for predatory trade: opium and tea.
     The East India bubble was a turning point. Thanks to a rare moment of the Crown being more powerful than the company during the bust, the bailout and regulation that came in the aftermath of the bubble fundamentally altered the structure of the EIC and the power relations between it and the state. Over the next 70 years, political, military and economic power were gradually separated and modern checks and balances against corporate excess came into being…
     …As an enabling mechanism, Britain had to rule the seas, comprehensively shut out the Dutch, keep France, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans (and later Russia) occupied on land, and have enough firepower left over to protect the EIC’s operations when the EIC’s own guns did not suffice. It is not too much of a stretch to say that for at least a century and a half, England’s foreign policy was a dance in Europe in service of the EIC’s needs on the oceans…
     …To read both books is to experience a process of enlightenment (The Corporation that Changed the World by Nick Robins and The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 by Alfred Thayer Mahan). An illegible period of world history suddenly becomes legible. The broad sweep of world history between 1500-1800 makes no real sense (between approximately the decline of Islam and the rise of the British Empire) except through the story of the EIC and corporate mercantilism in general…
     …The 16th century makes a vague sort of sense as the “Age of Exploration,” but it really makes a lot more sense as the startup/first-mover/early-adopter phase of the corporate mercantilism. The period was dominated by the daring pioneer spirit of Spain and Portugal, which together served as the Silicon Valley of Mercantilism. But the maritime business operations of Spain and Portugal turned out to be the MySpace and Friendster of Mercantilism: pioneers who could not capitalize on their early lead.
     Conventionally, it is understood that the British and the Dutch were the ones who truly took over. But in reality, it was two corporations that took over: the EIC and the VOC (the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded one year after the EIC) the Facebook and LinkedIn of Mercantile economics respectively. Both were fundamentally more independent of the nation states that had given birth to them than any business entities in history. The EIC more so than the VOC. Both eventually became complex multi-national beasts…
     …But arguably, the doings of the EIC and VOC on the water were more important than the pageantry on land. Today the invisible web of container shipping serves as the bloodstream of the world. Its foundations were laid by the EIC.
     For nearly two centuries they ruled unchallenged, until finally the nations woke up to their corporate enemies on the water. With the reining in and gradual decline of the EIC between 1780 and 1857, the war between the next generation of corporations and nations moved to a new domain: the world of time.
     The last phase of Mercantilism eventually came to an end by the 1850s, as events ranging from the first war of Independence in India (known in Britain as the Sepoy Mutiny), the first Opium War and Perry prying Japan open signaled the end of the Mercantilist corporation worldwide. The EIC wound up its operations in 1876. But the Mercantilist corporation died many decades before that as an idea. A new idea began to take its place in the early 19th century: the Schumpeterian corporation that controlled, not trade routes, but time. It added the second of the two essential Druckerian functions to the corporation: innovation.

II. Schumpeterian Growth and the Industrial Economy (1800 – 2000)

     …The action shifted to two huge wildcards in world affairs of the 1800s: the newly-born nation of America and the awakening giant in the east, Russia. Per capita productivity is about efficient use of human time. But time, unlike space, is not a collective and objective dimension of human experience. It is a private and subjective one. Two people cannot own the same piece of land, but they can own the same piece of time. To own space, you control it by force of arms. To own time is to own attention. To own attention, it must first be freed up, one individual stream of consciousness at a time.
     The Schumpeterian corporation was about colonizing individual minds. Ideas powered by essentially limitless fossil-fuel energy allowed it to actually pull it off…
     …If the EIC was the archetype of the Mercantilist era, the Pennsylvania Railroad company was probably the best archetype for the Schumpeterian corporation. Modern corporate management as well Soviet forms of statist governance can be traced back to it. In many ways the railroads solved a vastly speeded up version of the problem solved by the EIC: complex coordination across a large area. Unlike the EIC though, the railroads were built around the telegraph, rather than postal mail, as the communication system. The difference was like the difference between the nervous systems of invertebrates and vertebrates.
     If the ship sailing the Indian Ocean ferrying tea, textiles, opium and spices was the star of the mercantilist era, the steam engine and steamboat opening up America were the stars of the Schumpeterian era. Almost everybody misunderstood what was happening. Traveling up and down the Mississippi, the steamboat seemed to be opening up the American interior. Traveling across the breadth of America, the railroad seemed to be opening up the wealth of the West, and the great possibilities of the Pacific Ocean.
     Those were side effects. The primary effect of steam was not that it helped colonize a new land, but that it started the colonization of time. First, social time was colonized. The anarchy of time zones across the vast expanse of America was first tamed by the railroads for the narrow purpose of maintaining train schedules, but ultimately, the tools that served to coordinate train schedules: the mechanical clock and time zones, served to colonize human minds…
     …The steam engine was a fundamentally different beast than the sailing ship. For all its sophistication, the technology of sail was mostly a very-refined craft, not an engineering discipline based on science. You can trace a relatively continuous line of development, with relatively few new scientific or mathematical ideas, from early Roman galleys, Arab dhows and Chinese junks, all the way to the amazing Tea Clippers of the mid 19th century.
     Steam power though was a scientific and engineering invention. Sailing ships were the crowning achievements of the age of craft guilds. Steam engines created, and were created by engineers, marketers and business owners working together with (significantly disempowered) craftsmen in genuinely industrial modes of production. Scientific principles about gases, heat, thermodynamics and energy applied to practical ends, resulting in new artifacts. The disempowerment of craftsmen would continue through the Schumpeterian age, until Frederick Taylor found ways to completely strip mine all craft out of the minds of craftsmen, and put it into machines and the minds of managers. It sounds awful when I put it that way, and it was, in human terms, but there is no denying that the process was mostly inevitable and that the result was vastly better products.
     The Schumpeterian corporation did to business what the doctrine of Blitzkrieg would do to warfare in 1939: move humans at the speed of technology instead of moving technology at the speed of humans. Steam power used the coal trust fund (and later, oil) to fundamentally speed up human events and decouple them from the constraints of limited forms of energy such as the wind or human muscles. Blitzkrieg allowed armies to roar ahead at 30-40 miles per hour instead of marching at 5 miles per hour. Blitzeconomics allowed the global economy to roar ahead at 8% annual growth rates instead of the theoretical 0% average across the world for Mercantilist zero-sum economics. “Progress” had begun.
     The equation was simple: energy and ideas turned into products and services could be used to buy time. Specifically, energy and ideas could be used to shrink autonomously-owned individual time and grow a space of corporate-owned time, to be divided between production and consumption. Two phrases were invented to name the phenomenon: productivity meant shrinking autonomously-owned time. Increased standard of living through time-saving devices became code for the fact that the “freed up” time through “labor saving” devices was actually the de facto property of corporations. It was a Faustian bargain.
     Many people misunderstood the fundamental nature of Schumpeterian growth as being fueled by ideas rather than time. Ideas fueled by energy can free up time which can then partly be used to create more ideas to free up more time. It is a positive feedback cycle, but with a limit. The fundamental scarce resource is time. There is only one Earth worth of space to colonize. Only one fossil-fuel store of energy to dig out. Only 24 hours per person per day to turn into capitive attention.

     It is fairly obvious that Schumpeterian growth has been fueled so far by reserves of fossil fuels. It is less obvious that it is also fueled by reserves of collectively-managed attention.
     For two centuries, we burned coal and oil without a thought. Then suddenly, around 1980, Peak Oil seemed to loom menacingly closer.
     For the same two centuries it seemed like time/attention reserves could be endlessly mined. New pockets of attention could always be discovered, colonized and turned into wealth.
     Then the Internet happened, and we discovered the ability to mine time as fast as it could be discovered in hidden pockets of attention. And we discovered limits.
     And suddenly a new peak started to loom: Peak Attention.

(ed note: This is about corporations in a medieval world such as obtains in a fantasy role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. But it has some general principle that still apply in Rocketpunk. In such a game, a player group that rights wrongs and fights evil are called "heroes". A player group that just goes around killing people and monsters in order to steal their gold are called "murder hobos".)

Sometimes, neither the noble impulses to avenge a peaceful peasant village nor the fight in the employ of the King spurns adventure. Adventure starts with more base impulses. The quest for trade, the search for easier access to far away peoples and things, and the quick buck.

Out there, somewhere, lurking in the deepest jungles and the darkest forests, the merchants argue, are things. Things waiting for the smart and adventurous to come around and pop them into their backpacks. Things their customers pay enormous sacks of gold for. Spices, bespoke magic items, forbidden magic spells, rare lost reagents, and forbidden knowledge.

Their clients are the rich and famous – the nobility and the royalty. Nobility loves to lay hands on things the Merchant’s men find. The nobles horde them, and pet them, and build vast showrooms on their estates to show them off to other members of their pampered and perfumed kind. Merchants cannot price things their men bring back from the wilds, since there’s no market comparison.

In the name of sheer rareness, the Merchants price these objects ludicrously high. They walk away with vast profits.

And profit is a great mind focuser.

A merchant is going to go after those profits. But, adventures are risky and expensive. Adventurers need gear and transport.

A single merchant has difficulty raising investment for their ventures into the wilds alone. Also, a single Merchant doesn’t scale:

  • One company of adventurers with one ship and one mission might bring back one rare magic item over the course of six months, if they return at all.
  • Adventurer companies are prone to total party kill. Putting all the money in one adventuring company is an absurdly high risk to high reward venture.
  • If the adventurer company returns empty-handed, the entire endeavor collapses wiping out the Merchant.

Merchants tried to go it alone, at first. Single merchants raised money to outfit one to three adventuring companies by selling shares in their endeavor. The merchant sent the adventuring teams out into the wilds hoping for the occasional update on the mission via Sending.

Maybe the adventuring company returned with holds of things. The merchant retired fabulously wealthy while filling the coffers of his investors. But more often than not, the adventuring company disappeared. Or they returned, covered in worthless Deep Elf Underdark Marketing Regalia. The failed company meant a failed merchant, poor and destitute and chased forever by his investor’s lawyers.

The nobility is all about one Noble upping the others for political and personal gain. They have their prize adventurers and their glass cases full of magic swords. Merchants are about making profits while drastically lowering risk. A single merchant pulling together investment for one to three adventuring companies is a business endeavor carrying high risk. Two dozen merchants with two to six dozen adventuring companies amortize that risk while reaping a continuous stream of profits. Merchants only need a small percentage of their adventuring companies to return to fulfill their promises to their investors. And, as another tweak to the formula, instead of returning the money with an added percentage back to the investors and closing up shop on a successful adventure, the Merchants paid out dividends over time to anyone who bought and held shares in their company. They plowed the rest of the profits back into salaries and support for adventuring companies.

The Merchants formed a company concern, a governing board, and rules. They raised money and built their adventuring companies out of the highest level Murder Hobos. They took in investment and used the investment to pay for ships and weapons.

They sent their first adventuring companies out into the wilds and waited for the financial return.

The Transmuter Bankers were happy to provide facilities for turning adventure into a continuous stream of profit. They provided the banking services to ease buying, selling, and trading shares to help whip up adventuring company frenzy. Because they’re always ready to help.

Company Outfits

The Company (as the Merchants called it) grew in wealth from successful adventures and sales of returns to nobility. They transferred wealth from those born to money to those who make it.

The Company expanded from investing in single adventuring companies venturing out into the wilderness to full adventure support services. They built holdings on the edge of the civilized/wild frontier from which to launch their expeditions – and eventually their wars.

For adventuring companies in the employ of Merchants, the Company supplied everything free of charge assuming everyone involved is also a company employee:

  • Recruitment;
  • Training;
  • Clothing;
  • All standard weaponry, including an option to purchase price reduced magical weaponry from the company store;
  • All standard armor, including an option to purchase price reduced magical armor from the company store;
  • Magic reagents;
  • Scrolls and spells;
  • Transportation, including horses and ships;
  • Housing out on the frontier;
  • Support services – ie, meals, ship crews, tavern keepers, inn keepers, horse stables, etc.
  • Booze;
  • More booze;
  • Maps, if they exist;
  • And guides if they exist.

All Company-supplied gear must display the Company logo. Swords have the Company logo on the pommel. Beer steins have the company logo on their sides. Support crews wear Company-emblazoned jerseys. They even printed magic spells with the Company logo in the upper right hand corner. It’s all free even if adventurers working in the employ of the Company look like walking billboards.

This was a great gig for the cash-strapped peasant villager who decided to leave the farm and go into the adventuring business. It’s a great gig for anyone who wanted to move out of poverty and take a shot at riches, fame, and getting rivers named after themselves on maps. The Company was a force for good in society, they said. They’re moving people off the farms, on to boats, and into a life of adventure! And they’re sending adventurers out to destroy bad things out there. Bad things that want to come and eat babies! Pay no attention to the sudden influx of new magic into society…

The Company built and supplied everything an adventuring company needed. Horses, maps, weapons, guides, food, supplies, magic reagents. In return, the adventuring companies played by the Company’s playbook written and run by the Merchants back home. And, the Merchants had a funny idea of what worked out on the frontier of monsters, violence, blood and sweat. Their “good ideas on how an outpost ought to run” and how an outpost ought to run are two different things.

To enforce the Company’s playbook in the unruly frontiers of adventure, orks, trolls, hobgoblins, Deep Elves and dragons, the Company sent the Company Men. The Company armed these tiny autocratic bureaucrats with their own small Company-supplied military. The small military served only the bureaucrat and his several inches thick rulebook. The rulebook contained mild insanity. Limits on number of drinks per adventurer per evening. The number of allowable camp followers. Allowed limit on nightly fist fights in camp. And the like.

The bureaucrat’s one job was to report back via letters and spells to headquarters:

  • How are the adventurers working out?
  • Is everything peaceful out there or is the settlement in continuous uproar?
  • What is the state of supplies?
  • Is everyone following the Company’s Rules?
  • How may ork settlements did adventurers loot this week?
  • How many ork settlements the Company plans to loot next week?
  • How many new kinds of creatures the Company has found and can loot?
  • And just how much money did the Company make off the back of adventuring companies last week?

Should that last dot ever shrank, or the Company stopped making money off an investment, they packed up the entire frontier base – taverns, wenches, inns, stables and all – and moved it to a place less “mined” for its adventuring possibilities. And they continued to do move around the world until the world was bare of the magic swords, magic items, reagents, wonder, and mystery the Merchant’s clientele so craves.

But it’s not out of adventure, not yet… so they have a worse problem…

Running out of “Employees”

The problem with this scheme is two-prong:

  1. Adventurers in Highly Risky Situations are Prone to a Bad Case of Sudden Death.
  2. Successful Adventurers who Make and/or Skim a Pile of Loot are Unlikely to Keep Returning to Adventure to Gamble with Death

The Company is a great opportunity for the farmhand to get off the farm. Make some money! See the world! Learn a skill about how to shove a piece of metal into an ork! Run away from ogres screaming! End up in an adventuring company populated entirely by evil rogues!

But the world contained an exhaustible source of loose farmhands willing to pick up a sword and go fight for a profit-seeking enterprise. The professional adventurers, those with serious levels and their own magical equipment, signed up when the Company was new and the world full of easy opportunity. What seasoned adventurer wouldn’t want their jobs made easier by Company-supplied beer? But they also retired first, filthy stinking rich, and now hold shares in the Company.

Then, the next wave of adventurers signed up after hearing the exploits of the first and hoping to strike it rich. These are the earnest, the ones wanting to see the world, the wide-eyed, and the optimistic. The Company armed them with swords and armor, gave them horses, put them on ships, and shipped them off to far off destinations to die. Some beat the odds, and returned home. But the rest died in the buzzfeed maw of the newly organized ork armies who, at this point, clued in that something not particularly good was going on.

Once the Company depleted the country of farmhands who could leave their fields, the Company went after the prisons. Here lurk known killers with no future! Why not load them up on boats and ship them off to settlements on the frontier run by autocratic bureaucrats and arm them with swords? They’re away from the country. They’re fodder no one wants. They might or might not return with great riches! What could go wrong? Except when they finished off the remaining farmhands…

Those actually worked out pretty well. Except, the country only has so many known and convicted murderers rotting away in prisons. The share holders demanded an increasing raise in share price and dividend payouts. This requires more adventures, more frontier bases, and more humans for the adventure grinder. Once the farmhands died and the prisons emptied – a fantastic social good! – the Company got creative. First they depleted the prisons of other countries. Then, they tried hiring the self-same orks, hobgoblins, ogres, and trolls they were killing…

When that didn’t work, the Company resorted to a fun new plan. They sent agents to get people drunk in bars. The agents waited until the victim passed out. And then, the agents loading the new volunteer on ships bound for far off Company outposts (which may or may not still be there once the ship gets there.) The Company didn’t much care about the nationalities, loyalties, or treaties covering their victims. They simply loaded them on boats.

These victims end up in far off frontier Company Towns ruled by the tiny fist of a small-minded Company bureaucrat and filled with evil ex-murderers hardened and leveled by multiple trips down dungeons, into the maws of dragons, and local Underdark delves.

And most of them died, too.

But those that lived made a fortune. And became Company Men.

This was largely inspired by Henry Hudson’s trip up the New England coast and the discovery of Hudson Bay. Henry Hudson and his crew were in the employ of the Dutch West India Company or WIC.

From COMPANY MEN by multiplexer (2016)

Suggested Reading

The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine, the possibilities of interstellar trade
Costikyan, Greg . This does focus on slower-than-light interstellar trade, but still has plenty of hard data.
What Peak Oil Looks Like
Greer, John Michael. Very clearly explains how both the industrial revolution and globalization can be viewed as a kind of arbitrage.
The Theory of Interstellar Trade
Krugman, Paul. Amusing paper written by Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Mr. Krugman recently wrote a new forward for a re-issue of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Thanks to Kip Larson for suggesting this link.
A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100
Rao, Venkatesh. Long but fascinating article about the rise and fall of the British East India company. Science fiction authors will be able to quickly transpose this into a background of a galactic empire.
The Economics of Interstellar Commerce
Salomon, Warren, ANALOG magazine, (May 1989). Collected in Islands In The Sky. A very well-reasoned analysis on possible ways that interstellar trade can establish itself. It will repay careful study.
The Wealth of Galaxies
Salomon, Warren, ANALOG magazine, (December 1989) guest editorial. A follow-up to THE ECONOMICS OF INTERSTELLAR COMMERCE.
GURPS Traveller: Far Trader
Thrash, Christopher; Daniels, Steve; and MacLean, Jim . This is a supplement for a role-playing game but don't be fooled. This is almost a textbook-quality book. It has detailed analysis of the economics of interstellar trade, and a system of equations to model trade routes and economic demands. If you are working with interstellar trade at all, you need this book.


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