The cargo container - also known by a variety of names including shipping container, intermodal container and conex box is a form of standardised container introduced around 1970 to faciliate the handling of all forms of cargo. There are a number of variations within the international standard, but the basic form is a rectangular steel box with corrugated sides and doors in one end, eight foot square on the face and either twenty or forty feet long. These are then packed with cargo and/or modified to contain specific loads (variations include frames in which vehicles can be stored, bulk liquid or gas tanks inside a frame and hanging wardrobes for the transport of clothing). More advanced variants may have built in refrigeration or other services. Such standardisation allows most forms of cargo to be handled by a single set of equipment and loads to be moved between sea, road and rail vehicles without re-packing or significant modification. Similar, but generally smaller and lighter containers are used for air freight. These standard containers also stack and lock together, allowing them to be piled effectively and safely, either aboard ship or in yards awaiting movement. Security may consist of nothing more than a lock on the door, or may go as far as an internal alarm system with a remote link to a monitoring station. Sci-fi settings may include combat robots locked in the container with the cargo.
Once introduced, the standard container revolutionised the cargo business (incidentally putting large numbers of dockworkers out of work), as the majority of loads could now be packed at source and then handled by a small number of people using heavy equipment, as opposed to being hand portaged aboard the ship by longshoremen and packed into the holds by specialist stevedores. Most major ports were then re-built to handle containers exclusively and merchant ships converted in the same way or scrapped to be replaced with ships that could.
Besides handling cargo, shipping containers also make effective barricades and can be modified for use as expedient accomodation or as semi-permanent storage facilities and are pretty much a fixture of any commercial or industrial landscape from the 1970s onward.
It is not uncommon for construction firms to convert semi truck trailers into transportable office space that can be moved on-site. The same can be done with cargo containers. Cargo containers have sometimes been modified into cheap, habitable living modules that can be configured to fit the location - this sort of thing is relatively common amongst military users and other people who need to make quick, effective occupation of unprepared sites.
Game and Story Use
- Any modern cargo ship will now carry a load consisting mostly of piled containers, making an action aboard limited to the tall, narrow alleys between stacks. Much the same can be said of onshore operations in container yards.
- Container yards will now be a feature of any port - both the secure ones containing stacked cargo, and the less secure ones containing piles of empty containers.
- Finding one container in a pile of more or less identical ones can be challenging - especially if someone has deliberately meddled with the records. This can work both ways - either the container you are looking for cannot be found, or someone gets the wrong container by accident.
- All sorts of adventures can be hooked on people finding something unexpected in a container - dead people are a favourite, especially if the container has been sitting around for years. For smuggling operations, expect false walls across containers and the like.
- You can put literally anything in a container - the Russians in particular have created anti-shipping missile systems which can be fitted inside and launched from a standard container.
- These have endless potential from arming Q-ships to ambushing warships in costal waters - potentially a container ship, fully loaded with covert missile pods, could unleash a terrifying barrage of fire which could make for an awesome latter day Pearl Harbour attack.
- Also most anti-shipping missiles require little or no modification for land-attack use, with many of the same implications as above - especially given that Conex boxes are deliberately easy to transport and, with an appropriate paint scheme, effectively invisible.
- People occasionally end up in shiping containers, usually as part of some kind of trafficking attempt. This is rarely a good idea, as default containers are poorly ventilated and prone to extremes of temperature. There's also the risk of the container being buried in the middle of a stack for weeks on end…
- Of course a properly adapted container, perhaps disguised as a refrigerated unit (thus requiring an air supply and external power), is another matter altogether.
- A lot of containers float … sort of … and, once lost over the side, can wander about the sea for months or even years, at or below the surface of the water and effectively invisible under most conditions. This makes for the sort of collision at sea that has ruined people's days since the days of Thucydides.
- This could potentially be a good way of fouling a shipping lane - filling a key waterway like the Dover Narrows, the Pillars of Hercules or the Malacca Straits with floating shipping containers could prove a serious nuisance. Even if they are unlikely to inflict fatal damage on a modern cargo ship they can still do sufficient harm to force a ship into dock.
- As noted above, these things make a good barricade - if you have a yard full of them to hand, a skilled lift truck operator can build a wall eight feet high in minutes just by lining them up. Individual containers weigh about four ton apiece empty and are designed to be stable, so that wall will also need heavy equipment to dismantle even before you start filling the containers with dirt. Even empty, they will be fine for keeping zombies out, even fast ones.
- Less sane people can also keep zombies inthem.
- This could be a side effect of using them as a makeshift prison - whilst people can and do lock prisoners in them, an unmodified conex box is poorly ventilated and very thermally inefficient, potentially getting very hot in the day and very cold at night. As previously noted, people locked in conex boxes are prone to die.
- That said, they do need a specialist plant operator to move them - a good opportunity for obscure PC backgrounds to shine (although it's a standard part of the skillset for a lot of people in the modern freight business from truck drivers and merchant seamen to railwaymen and military logistiscians). More fun can ensue if PCs have a container to move but nothing like the correct skills.
- Potentially ConEx units might be the sort of thing that appear on the Equipment List once your RPG system rolls out the "big boys rules" - PCs with (para)military units and other significant expeditions to outfit might well find themselves shopping for that sort of thing and it makes sense to have a list of them ready. Thus they could well have the choice of accommodation units, generator packs, even fully fitted washroom, kitchen, workshop and laboratory units, all ready to roll in ConEx format.
- This is probably realistic for a modern campaign (such things may already be available and could certainly be commissioned), although buying them "off the shelf" may be a little cinematic. For a Sci-fi campaign, especially one with extensive private exploration, they should probably appear in a catalogue somewhere.