Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Traveller Tuesday: Legally Dead in Low Passage

In my Traveller game, anyone who is cryogenically frozen is considered legally dead under Imperial law for the duration of their freeze. There are several good reasons for this, mainly to to preserve financial institutions and help enforce criminal law.
My use of Traveller setting and dress falls under
fair use guidelines for both Mongoose and Far Future Enterprises.
Let us assume that you are a member of the Imperial Navy or Scouts, and your ship is critcally damaged. You send out a distress signal, set the power plant to run as long as possible while using as little fuel as possible, and crawl into a low berth to await rescue. Unfortunately, due to the vastness of the Imperium and the speed of light, you aren't rescued for a century. When you are rescued, you petition for 100 years of back pay, along with everyone else on your ship who survives. After all, you were in the service when you went into cryostasis, and you're still in the service when you wake up. It wasn't your fault that your century of service was spent in suspended animation, but the fact remains that you've lost time that could have been spent with family and friends, so you're due compensation. And with a century of back pay, you can retire from the service and never have to work again. Or perhaps you'll go into politics, funded by this handy war chest.

Well, no. The Imperium is a conservative society, and the entrenched nobility really doesn't like the idea of ships full of fresh, eager bodies becoming instantly rich through an accident. They also don't like the idea of someone with just enough income to rent a cold berth for a few decades to make some investments and then go to sleep, hopefully waking up with millions in stock options. (This would be akin to buying stock in Apple, Microsoft and Nike in the 1980s and then waking up today.)

No, when you are in cryostasis you are effectively dead, and so all forms of income revert to your next of kin and/or stop paying out (in the case of salaries and pensions). There is a bit of legal "wiggle room" built into the concept of low passage, in that such passage usually only takes between a week and a month, and the amount of paperwork to declare a passenger dead, only to then declare them alive again after they've arrived, is considerable and annoying. Therefore, most corporations have a 30 day "grace period" before they begin the paperwork. This can lead to inventive investors doing things like entering cold sleep for 3 weeks before being thawed out for one week in an attempt to extend their lives cheaply. However, this is known as financial fraud and is frowned upon by the authorities.
Sidebar: Financial Trusts
Someone will inevitably ask "Why don't people just create a trust to receive the finances, with the person in coldsleep being the beneficiary of the trust? This is a good question, and while there are probably loopholes to be exploited here due to my ignorance regarding finance law, there are two broad provisions which make this a less than ideal solution for the miserly

First, if it's a familial trust, then other people will have access to those funds while you are asleep. How much do you trust your kin? Because this is a great way to wake up suddenly poor.

Second, if it's just you in the trust, then someone needs to be managing it while you're legally dead. Someone like a financial adviser. Someone who knows how your money works, and for how long you're going to be asleep, and how to embezzle and hide funds.. or, alternately, someone who controls the payment to the people who are keeping you in cold sleep.

Remember, if you're obsessed with money, you're obsessed with keeping it and you're obsessed with making sure people don't take it away from you, so distrust (if not outright paranoia) is part of the package.
Criminal Law
When crimes are too severe for a fine, but not so severe that the demand death, the traditional punishment is either imprisonment or involuntary servitude. In effect, these sentences are saying "We are taking years away from you as punishment for what you took away from others." Invariably, some felons with rich friends or political connections would seek to do their time in cold sleep, thereby evading the actual physical punishment of the sentence. However, you cannot make a corpse do time, so under this rule the timer on the prison sentence is put on pause until such time as the prisoner comes out of stasis.

Interestingly enough, though. time spent in cold sleep does count towards the statute of limitations on crimes. This is because the statute of limitation applies to the crime, not to the person, and it's generally believed that if you were willing to lose that portion of the lives of your loved ones to avoid doing time, you've already paid your sentence. It's also worth pointing out that the most heinous crimes (rape, murder, slavery, genocide, treason, etc) have no statute of limitations to them.

Passage Between Star Systems
This is where the law sees the most use, and the reasoning for that is fairly straightforward.

Revivification Liability: If you're legally dead in low passage, then the ship's doctor who fails to revive you is not legally liable for any medical negligence. In fact, part of the act of purchasing a low passage ticket is signing a waiver saying "I acknowledge that I will be dead for the duration of my low passage."

Effectively Cargo: There are specific laws against treating sapient beings like cargo, most of which are anti-slavery in nature. If low passengers are dead, then they are legally cargo, and as such can be (and often are) stacked like cordwood, don't require as many crew to look after them, etc.

Abandoning Ship: There are also Imperial regulations for live passengers in the event of an emergency, such as "There must be enough escape pods or rescue balls for all of them" and "All passengers must be taken off the ship before the crew can abandon it." It would be ridiculous to demand escape pods for people already frozen, and lethal to everyone if they had to be defrosted before abandoning ship. Since they are considered cargo, they may be abandoned with impunity.

This is not quite as monstrous as it sounds, however; remember that emergency low berths exist as a method for crew members to await rescue. This means that a low passage berth is, effectively, its own non-mobile escape pod and requires only a trickle of power. Therefore, unless the ship was catastrophically lost (exploded, crashed, fell into a gas giant, etc), both the Imperium and any corporate entity under which the ship the flying will make good-faith efforts to locate and revive passengers and crew in cold sleep.

But what about the Frozen Watch?
Good question. I have three possible solutions:
  1. The Frozen Watch is a form of non-judicial punishment that is assigned to crewmembers. This is especially useful if the ship doesn't have room for a brig. Loss of pay is also a time-honored form of NJP which dovetails nicely with not drawing a salary while being legally dead.
  2. Crewmembers can also volunteer for the Frozen Watch, usually as a means of earning extra points towards promotion, or as a way of being RIFed out, or to avoid a worse assignment while waiting for a vacancy in a school or aboard a desired ship. In this case, the volunteer is presented with what is essentially a "signing bonus" that is equal or greater than the pay he'd miss. Given that most volunteers for the Watch are either junior officers or non-senior NCOs, the long-term effects of being declared legally dead for up to a year are minimal. 
  3. In the absence of personnel from 1 and 2, time in the watch can be considered just part of regular service. It's a crap assignment that no one wants (and again, no one with seniority has to spend time in "the cold barrel"), but everyone has to perform  as part of paying their dues. In this case, time in the watch is probably around a week, and the Navy just never files the legally dead paperwork because of the aforementioned administrative hassle -- essentially, "What happens aboard ship, stays aboard ship."

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