Transporting goods in Serenity, or “Why did the Serenity crew get such crappy jobs?”
213 occupied worlds, 50 billion people. That’s a lot, with a lot of things to be moved, especially between the Rim and the Core.
How are things moved?
Super Freighters – The vast majority of goods are moved in bulk, in super freighters that carry 100,000’s of tons and move very slowly, but with Alliance escorts….well, the ones moving Coreward have escorts, the ones moving outbound less so, and usually have mercenary/private contractors as escorts. Supers are owned by the major corporations in the ‘Verse, based on the Core Worlds, and costs billions of dollars to build and maintain. There are not a lot of these ships and only a very small percentage of them are privately owned, the rest are corporate owned. Because of the overhead in running them, they only roll when they’re full, and only go to places that they can unload full and load up again. They do not make multiple stops, they do not shuttle things around, they do not land or go atmo, and they do not travel partially full. Consequently, they move from resource point A to resource point B, carrying a full load each time.
Medium Freighters – Obviously there are lots of places that need goods that are not capable of taking a full load and/or don’t have the resources to fill a super, so moving things on this middle scale falls into the hands of the medium freighters, which are owned by smaller corporations and LLC’s. Again, large vessels (about 4x the size of a firefly), but not nearly on the scale of the supers so less expensive to run and capable of smaller loads. However, they’re still big and they still cost a lot, so they also try to avoid moving partially full. These ships are generally used for shuttling bulk from the primary super stops to the other worlds in a region, distributing the load to the planets in the area that don’t warrant a super stop. While these can go atmo, they prefer unloading in zero g and letting the station tenders/shuttles bring the material to the ground.
Small Freighters – Lastly there are the smaller freighters, the fireflies and the like. These are capable of carrying a city’s worth of materials in small hops, go atmo to deliver them, and visit the smaller colonies, etc. All of the remaining jobs fall into this band, and these ships are owned by all manner of people/corporations, ranging from fleet corporations that own 100’s of them and manage entire regions to private owners who are making it by the skin of their teeth.
What are they moving?
There are tiers of cargo, and each is treated differently with regard to availability, cost, price, risk, etc.
Bulk – Bulk items are the things that are needed in such vast quantities that they can only be carried by super freighters. Things like food, grain, fuel, raw materials, construction materials, etc are all transported around in supers. Because of the bulk, their per/unit cost is very low so the only way to make any money shipping them is by doing so in massive bulk. Because of the size of the cargo, the risk is relatively low…no one hijack’s a super freighter full of grain and run off with it, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is super freighters don’t “run” anywhere. Getting into this business is virtually impossible, much like the railroads of the old west…if you don’t have a super freighter, you’re not likely to be able to afford it, and even if you got one, all of the major corporations have their contracts locked down tight. In fact, most of the major resource producers have their own super freighter subsidiaries and transport their own goods, further reducing their over-head.
- Cost: low, per unit
- Price: low, per unit
- Risk: low
- Cost to enter: prohibitive
- Cost to ship: If you are the shipper, you need a minimum amount of materials that you need to ship that in huge quantities (100,000’s of tons), otherwise it’s not worth the shipper’s effort to deal with you.
Commodities – These are items that are needed in large quantities but not as large as Bulk, things like medical supplies, textiles, electronics, colonial development, etc. The cost and price on these varies with the cargo. Rarely are medium freighters raided unless the cargo is known in advance because going through the effort to raid a ship only to find it’s filled with tractors and agricultural equipment is not worth the effort or risk. However, they are raided and there is risk, which means that most freighters at this level travel with insurance and/or are bonded as well as having escorts. Being bonded is expensive, which must be passed on to the customer, so shipping at this level can be a bit pricey, but a medium freighter filled with medical supplies pulls a great price on the black market, so it’s worthwhile.
- Cost: Varies widely, but typically average
- Price: Varies widely, but typically average
- Risk: Typically low due to the nature of the business and risk mitigation in place
- Cost to enter: Very expensive due to the cost of the ship, fuel, insurance, bonding, and escorts. Based upon the value of the cargo, customers expect that the shipper is doing the normal risk mitigation diligence.
- Cost to ship: Expensive, because of the cost to operate. Looking for a “cheap” freighter to send a million dollars of medical supplies is a losing proposition.
Miscellaneous Goods – Everything else falls into the small freighter band. This can literally be anything that needs to be transported, just in a smaller volume, ranging from a super computer to a herd of livestock. Corporate pilots at this level, who are part of a fleet that’s corporate-owned, are insured and bonded, which gives them a huge edge over private contractors because of the risk mitigation, so competition at this level is fierce. If you’re insured or bonded, you’re insured or bonded to a specific level, and you can’t (legally) carry cargo beyond that limit. For example, if you’re bonded for 1 million dollars, you can’t wisely carry 2 million in medical supplies, and the customer can easily validate your level of insurance so they will know, unless you’re scamming them.
If you’re a private owner, unbounded and uninsured, your reputation is all that you have to secure jobs, which means that, if the shipper doesn’t know you and trust you, they won’t give you business, and one bad deal (or even the rumour of a bad deal) can ensure you never get work again in that region. The more valuable the cargo, the more profit to be made, but the more likely the customer will want risk mitigation in place beyond “I promise you I’ll get it there.”
- Cost: average-to-high, based upon the goods
- Price: average-to-high, based upon the goods
- Risk: High, especially if the cargo is valuable. There are times you’re carrying cargo worth more than your ship, making you a prime target for pirates and scavengers to take advantage of you.
- Cost to enter: Low initially, assuming on bonding or insurance, the ships are cheap and (relatively) inexpensive to run
- Cost to ship: average-to-high, based upon the goods
Contraband – While there are some cases there something is legal on one planet and illegal on another (for example, it’s “illegal” to walk armed on Higgins Moon), for the most part, because the Alliance is the overarching government, if it’s illegal than it’s illegal everywhere. The Alliance has a zero-tolerance policy on contraband, possession of it is grounds for being bound by law and having your ship impounded and confiscated. Additionally, because contraband is illegal, it cannot be bonded or insured (go ahead, file that claim in the courts), so the risk is even greater. Consequently, the transportation of contraband goods is both of the highest risk and has the highest payoff.
- Cost: High
- Price: High
- Risk: Very high (not only is the Alliance after you, pirates and scavengers are too)
- Cost to enter: Low, no insurance or bonding necessary
- Cost to ship: High, due to the risks
How do I find jobs?
I know a guy – The oldest, easiest, and most common method of finding a job is knowing someone who has a job. This requires having contacts/allies out there in the industry who trust you and your good name. The better your name is, the more likely word of mouth will spread your name around and create more work for you. This is the least reliable method, because it relies upon who you know and what they have, sort of the passive approach to getting work.
Brokers – Kind of like an extended “I know a guy”, you know a guy who knows lots of guys. What a broker does, all day long, is look for jobs for you, and takes a cut of your profits from the jobs he gets you. Also known as fixers or handlers, Brokers handle ship owners who know how to fly a ship but not so much how to run a business. If you’re dirtside for a day, in space for a week, and dirtside for a day, you don’t have much time to glad hand the locals. A Broker does that for you. He makes the contact, closes the deal, notifies you, handles the fund transfer and all the paperwork and does all the communication. The pilot shows up, picks up the goods, flies, and drops off the goods. That’s it. It’s like working for a Trade Fleet except you choose the jobs you do and can refuse jobs at any time…with the understanding that your Broker may drop you as a customer if you prove unreliable or too finicky.
’Tex Board – An enterprising young man (he’s not young anymore, and now he’s a multi-planet conglomerate) named Tex, who lives in the Core, came up with the brilliant idea of creating a bulletin board for people to post jobs and interest on for moving cargo around. There is a small monthly fee for both the customer and the shipper to belong to it, and it’s linked to your Cortex ID, so if you screw someone over and are blacklisted, you’ll have a very hard time getting jobs on Tex Board. Several other people tried to emulate Tex’s idea, but they didn’t do as well and eventually Tex bought them out. Tex is unaffiliated with any shipping company (a source of pride to him and his crew) and makes a lot of money being honest, so he strives to keep his reputation sterling. Anyone who tries to screw Tex or impinge upon his reputation has very bad things happen to them before they disappear. His reputation is his business, so he protects it viciously.
No illicit activities can happen on Tex Board (as far as anyone knows) so it remains solely a source of legitimate commerce, though obviously there are ways, if you know them. Competition on the board is fierce because it’s so wide-spread, so worthwhile jobs don’t remain open long. Posts hit and are reviewed by 10,000’s of brokers across the Verse, who make deals for their customers and close the posts almost as fast as they open. Reneging on a deal made through Tex Board has consequences, as you have a Tex Rating assigned to your Cortex ID, based upon your reliability. If snatch up a bunch of posts to do, but only do a few of them, or do them poorly, your rating drops and limits start being imposed on how many posts you can have open at a time, until eventually you’re black listed. Many a broker’s career has been ended by being careless and having their rating destroyed. Tex takes it very seriously and would rather blackball a thousand brokers than have customers get bad service from his board.
There are premium services available which grant access to other areas of the board and other services, like discount bonding and insurance, ship repair depots, fuel discounts, etc. Tex makes a fortune off of ad revenue in addition to his subscription fees, but says he’s only doing it to help all the weary Free Traders out there catch a break.
The process is simple:
- Ship owners looking for jobs hit the board and look for things near where they are, going to where they’re going. They contact the customer and negotiate the deal. When the deal is struck, the post is removed.
- Ship owners post their source and destinations and let people contact them about getting room in their ship for their cargo. This can be risky because you’re telling the world of pirates and scavengers where you are and going, though not necessarily your route.
- Customers post what they need moved, from where to where, and how much they’re willing to pay.
Between the 3, billions of dollars of business is done every year and Tex is a name every free trader knows.