What Would Spielberg Do?
December 19, 2008 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Please help me come up with a story twist! I need an idea for a highly valuable, secret cargo smuggled on-board an oil tanker. Difficulty: no warheads or drugs.

So an oil tanker sinks, perhaps purposefully scuttled. Industrial salvagers go in to try and rescue the ship. In the process they find that instead of oil, something else is was on that boat, something that was in the process of being smuggled or trying to be hidden forever on the bottom of the ocean. Now someone is trying to kill them before they bring up the ship. Question: what is the secret cargo?

Whatever it is, it has to be super valuable, super dangerous, or super important to the health/prosperity of millions of people. It has to be something worth a lot, seeing how the nefarious dudes were trying to destroy it by scuttling a damn oil tanker, or risk smuggling it across the oceans.

And it has to be tangible and sizable, measured in the tons or gallons, so that it justified the use of an oil tanker as opposed to a yacht. Which nixes anything in the idea-realm you could put on a disk or jump-drive.

I'm interested also in the idea that it was something "good" as opposed to "evil," such as gallons of a vaccine or medicine that an evil pharmaceutical company would want to destroy. But then, someone could always make more of it, I suppose.

Any ideas or brainstorms? It doesn't necessarily have to be something that really exists at this moment in time, but the more realistic it is, the better. (So no cancer-curing alien blood, please.)
posted by np312 to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
a group of people?
posted by lia at 5:51 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The DeBeers Corporation used the tanker to dispose of excess diamonds so keep the price up.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:58 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

*to keep the price up
posted by dunkadunc at 5:59 PM on December 19, 2008

And if you are wanting to hide something small like a jump drive it would be better hidden on an oil tanker than on a yacht.

I like the idea of having it be one person. Having them scuttle the ship to get one person shows determination.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:05 PM on December 19, 2008

The contents of an ancient library or tomb?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:06 PM on December 19, 2008

What's the point in scuttling the ship if the industrial salvagers know where it is and can bring it back up? Wouldn't that just delay the outing of the secret?
posted by dunkadunc at 6:15 PM on December 19, 2008

This depends on the rest of your story, but maybe seeds/DNA to all the plant life? I remember there being someone who built a cave in the ground somewhere where they did that, in the event of some horrid event above ground. Maybe people were sending it from america to europe or africa or something for some reason? (maybe this would be ruined by the sinking though)?
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:34 PM on December 19, 2008

Bodily organs packed in dry ice, mass-produced in an organ farm by genetic scientists?
posted by Weng at 6:38 PM on December 19, 2008

Best answer: DDT destined for malaria-plagued African nations.
posted by aleahey at 6:38 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Proof of alien life? A UFO?
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:39 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

A shipment of counterfeit silicon (CPUs, disk drive controllers, integrated peripheral chipsets) containing nefarious gate-level backdoors?

Alternately, a shipment of counterfeit silicon (CPUs, disk drive controllers, integrated peripheral chipsets) that don't contain the (as revealed elsewhere in the story) standard nefarious backdoors?

Endangered-species plant or animal products. Always a good standby.

Politically sensitive refugees or abductees in a shipping container: the lost prince, the witnesses to the massacre, the missing famous reporter.
posted by hattifattener at 6:42 PM on December 19, 2008

Metal Gear?!

This is more or less the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty; you may want to scan the WP article to make sure your story doesn't parallel it too closely. A tanker is used to transport a mobile nuclear-missile-launching platform, an uberweapon; it is scuttled, ostensibly by terrorists, but in fact the scuttling was planned, as cover for undersea development of a mobile headquarters for a flotilla of mobile nuclear-missile-launching platforms.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:49 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: ikkyu2: that's cool and I'll check it out, but there's no nuclear warhead stuff in this story. Probably no terrorists either, unless it's really original and offbeat. I'm not sure that they're even scuttling it on purpose, the ship may have sunk for other reasons.

At any rate, these are fantastic ideas, please keep them coming!
posted by np312 at 6:55 PM on December 19, 2008

Non-GM, genetically diversified seeds. See real-life example here.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:57 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Helium 3
posted by demon666 at 7:11 PM on December 19, 2008

Heavy water?
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:14 PM on December 19, 2008

Extraterrestrial biological entity. In liquid form.
posted by synecdoche at 7:26 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Plutonium "Over one third of the energy produced in most nuclear power plants comes from plutonium. It is created there as a by-product. Plutonium has occurred naturally, but except for trace quantities it is not now found in the Earth's crust. There are several tonnes of plutonium in our biosphere, a legacy of atmospheric weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium is radiologically hazardous, particularly if inhaled, so must be handled with appropriate precautions. Plutonium, both from reactors and from dismantled nuclear weapons, is a valuable energy source when integrated into the nuclear fuel cycle."

Plutonium itself is not a weapon, but a form of energy and it is very valuable to someone wanting to make nuclear weapons.

Triple, a novel based on a similar idea by Ken Follett.
posted by JujuB at 7:37 PM on December 19, 2008

An fossil or a mummy which could restate the story of evolution, prove that God existed or something that the neocons would like exposed, covered....
posted by london302 at 7:39 PM on December 19, 2008

Vats of temporarily inert grey goo.
posted by Caviar at 7:40 PM on December 19, 2008

np312: "Whatever it is, it has to be super valuable, super dangerous, or super important to the health/prosperity of millions of people."

Why not all three? Perhaps the cargo could be some highly useful yet unstable material, valuable if used correctly, but capable of catastrophic damage if mishandled. A couple of things come to mind here:

Antimatter? I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure that if matter and antimatter come into contact, they explode violently. Perhaps the ship could be carrying a stockpile of the stuff held in stasis by some bulky and complicated mechanism. If returned to the rightful owners, it would be a valuable source of research, or perhaps alternative energy. If it falls into the wrong hands, it's a potential weapon. And if mishandled during the course of the story, it would explode and kill everyone in a ten-mile radius.

Similarly, the shipment could be a few cargo containers full of dormant nanomachines. If activated, they would spread out and consume the world. (On preview, looks like Caviar came up with this first.)

Also, considering the ocean setting, the cargo could be something that has a special reaction with water. Perhaps some Ice 9-like substance that could destroy the ocean if released, or a potent marine virus, or a voracious artificial life-form that could destabilize the food chain. Basically anything that could harm the ocean on a global scale would also pose a huge indirect threat to all life on the planet.

I'd also consider bcwinters' suggestion of a MacGuffin. Don't be mum on the issue, but drop just enough vague clues to intrigue the reader and let their imaginations run wild.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:54 PM on December 19, 2008

portable cold fusion machine?

HIV vaccine?
posted by meeshell at 7:55 PM on December 19, 2008

A new kind of oil or gasoline that is self-replicating -- place a few drops of it in a bucket of water and it will turn it into a bucket of oil, that can further replicate itself. the oil industry/Saudis discovered it, but want it kept under wraps, so they put the entire supply of it on a tanker. Only problem is if this "oil-9" leaks into the ocean we've got an ocean of petroleum. The tanker has sunk (thankfully the storage holds where the oil-9 is kept are structurally sound). Only problem is the ship is precariously close to the continental shelf, and if it slides down to the ocean floor, the increased pressure will rupture the holds.

The oil barons want it hidden, everyone else wants it for themselves, maybe some apocalyptic cultists want it released into the ocean. Fun for everyone!
posted by Rock Steady at 7:57 PM on December 19, 2008

Best answer: Why not oil? I believe, based on almost no knowledge, that oil has a unique fingerprint that can identify what oil field it was pumped from. So a ship full of oil from an oil field in an embargoed country, owned by the wrong company, and headed to the wrong country is a potential embarrassment to someone and proof of a criminal act.
posted by rdr at 7:57 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Only problem is the edit feature is not rolled out yet.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:59 PM on December 19, 2008

Tons of tree trunks. Soaked in toxins then illegally shipped in a waxlike covering with Cicada larvae inside. The tanker has been down there for 16 years. If the thousands of logs are brought up on land then the larvae eat the toxins, emerge and take to the skies, then die like normal - spreading the toxins everywhere - into the atmosphere, food chain, water supply.
posted by cashman at 8:09 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: An oil tanker could be used as a mobile, offshore refinery, laboratory, or factory, rather than simply transporting cargo. The evidence could come in the form of the equipment being used, rather than a raw product.

For that matter, it could also be a casino, brothel, or counterfeiting operation. The party interested in preventing the ship's purpose from coming to light would be its owners.
posted by Durhey at 10:10 PM on December 19, 2008

A rare meteorite that rewrites the history of the solar system - priceless and wanted by collectors but perhaps hated by creationists?
posted by Flitcraft at 10:15 PM on December 19, 2008

How about the Aga Khan and a terrorist vs terrorist sort of setting?
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 11:14 PM on December 19, 2008

ice 9
posted by kanemano at 11:17 PM on December 19, 2008

Are you certain you want to use an oil tanker for this plot device? Oil tankers are designed to carry only liquid bulk cargo. Pumps send the liquids through hoses into the ships' tanks.

With the exception of OBO's (ore-bulk-oil combination carriers), the only time oil tankers carry dry bulk cargo is during their final voyage to the scrapyard. Wouldn't you fare better using a bulk freighter?
posted by terranova at 11:48 PM on December 19, 2008

anastasia romanoff, cryogenically preserved!
posted by klanawa at 12:05 AM on December 20, 2008

Helium 3? Super rare on earth, extremely useful for fusion research, radioactive but fairly non-lethal, and transportable in liquid form. And expensive as all hell. The entire US stockpile of helium only contains 10 to 100 kilos of the stuff, so the "Where did someone come up with all this?" part could play a really unique role.
posted by Benjy at 12:21 AM on December 20, 2008

Yeah, personally think unless you specifically need it to be an oil tanker, some other kind of ship would be better suited.

May I suggest a pirate ship instead? These things are usually small and fast. The pirates could then take over a slightly larger ship maybe, and take their secret cargo aboard. Under cover of "these pirates are bad guys and they must be stopped", the ship is sunk, burying the horrible truth: these were not pirates at all, but spies (or something) working to uncover a vast conspiracy blah blah blah. The "secret cargo" they were carrying? A young woman disguised as one of the pirates; her testimony would implicate the leaders of several central Asian countries. Although her spoken testimony is lost, somewhere on the ship is her very informative diary.

But seriously, don't half-ass this. I personally get sick of stories where the McGuffin is really a McGuffin. Whatever you choose, research it well and make it an integral part of the plot.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:01 AM on December 20, 2008

Best answer: valuable/super important to the health/welfare of millions of people?

Plates for counterfeiting money.

A huge amount of perfectly counterfeited money (dollars, or you could make it a bit more exotic, like yen, or euros)

Aids and cholera drugs sold by Mugabe to finance his dictatorship.

a prototype for an invention that is amazing and/or could save the world (photovoltaics that work at 90% efficiency, a retrovirus that cures hiv, a test crop of a supergrain that grows like a weed, or a weed that sucks up heavy metals and industrial chemicals while fixing nitrogen, thus making polluted soil into viable farmland. A easy and cheap additive that improves car's mpg by 500%)

Prosthetics for child victims of land mines.

A secret negotiation team from North Korea or Iran, headed to talks with the US.

American POWs from the Vietnam war.

dangerous but not drugs or nuclear?

It could have been a floating secret CIA prison. they scuttled it rather then admit their mistake.

botulism toxin intended to be converted into cheap counterfeit botox.


plants infected with an airborne disease that kills grains. If that spread in america, the significant percentage of the world population who depend on grain from america, plus americans themselves, might die.

a pheromone that causes women to enter heat, and thus threatens to destroy feminism.

a virus that can be tailored to target a person based on their genes, and renders men sterile (the perfect means of genocide)

A world leader believed to be dead, or their body (which proves they died recently of old age). Hitler is too easy. I'd go with Ghandi, just cause it would be thrilling to read, "And that's why Ghandi faked his own death."
posted by gryftir at 4:52 AM on December 20, 2008

A shipment of cheap, reliable, electric car engines? You know, the ones that have a range of 1,000 miles on a single charge, will charge in 4 hours connected to a standard electric socket and have a top speed of 90mph?
posted by DWRoelands at 8:44 AM on December 20, 2008

a solution that gets rid of (_____), made from a natural substance found on the bottom of the sea- but the scientst that discovered this has died had massive brain damage due to a (_____), left no scientific papers, and there is no clue how to make more.

Or the "substance" is a single, genetically modified _____, created by mistake in a lab experiment gone wrong, and no more of them can be reproduced since its (illegal, impossible...)
posted by Izzmeister at 11:55 AM on December 20, 2008

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