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Salvage Pirates

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Cornish wreckers at work.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: You know anything that's worth anything's really right here in this cargo bay. So you take a look around, decide what you think is fair.
Other captain: Already have. [gutshots Mal] We're taking your ship.

Our heroes are adrift and need of rescue. Maybe they're adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Maybe they are in an escape pod or a damaged starship floating in the vastness of space. Maybe their airplane or spaceship crashed in a desert, or a jungle, or onto an uncharted island or planet. They need rescue.

And rescue arrives! Or so it seems. Actually, the first people to show up are more interested in stealing their stuff and looting their bodies than they are in actually rescuing anyone. Survivors just jeopardize the salvage value of whatever bits of Phlebotinum are left over. Our heroes either have to fight them, or escape from them, or turn the tables and steal their ship instead.

Very much a part of many Robinsonade plots. Probably the reason is that the "surviving with ingenuity on a desert island" part of the story eventually gets boring, and to have a dramatic climax before the final rescuing there is nothing better than to throw in a fight with Pirates for no other reason than the Rule of Cool.

See Scavenger World for an environment where they are very likely to be found.

See also Space Pirates, Bedouin Rescue Service, and Cavalry Betrayal.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Interesting variation in One Piece. When the Log Pose of the Straw Hat Pirates points at the sky, they find themselves lost, not knowing how to sail up to the sky. Suddenly a group of literal salvage pirates appears, trying to salvage a ship that fell down from the sky. This ship might also contain clues to how to sail to the sky, so the Straw Hats make themselves the enemies of the salvaging pirates (for a while). Some unexpected circumstances chase the salvagers away, but Nico Robin manages to steal an Eternal Pose showing the way to Jaya Island, where they learn the way to the sky.

    Comic Books 
  • Friday the 13th: Jason vs. Jason X opens with bunch of people finding the wreckage of the spaceship Grendel drifting in space, and boarding it in search of "booty". They end up as the first victims in the comic, as Jason Voorhees returns back to life just after their arrival.
  • The Transformers (IDW) features some who attempt to use Rodimus and the Autobot Matrix of Leadership as a battery to power their ship. While the pirates offer the young Autobot a lift offworld, conflict arises when they reveal that they are not sure if Rodimus will survive the process. He winds up escaping and rallies some other castaways to help steal the ship stranding the captain. Ironically, Rodimus winds up using himself as a battery anyway, though he does survive the process.
  • Wonder Woman
    • Wonder Woman (1942): Wondy fights some literal salvage pirates in the Caribbean, who are trying to secretly salvage gold from a long sunken Spanish conquistador ship and are murderously protective of the secrecy of their activities and loot.
    • Wonder Woman (1987): The Sangtee Empire captures ships found stranded in their space and enslaves any outsiders found aboard. Space Pirates later use their knowledge of the Empire's practice of this to steal Empire ships by putting an apparently disabled ship near a shipping lane with the pirates aboard playing dead in space suits and then ambushing the Empire troops when they pull the ship in.

    Comic Strips 
  • Happens at least once in The Phantom. The 16th Phantom and his wife are on their honeymoon when the ship is destroyed in a storm, with the only survivors seeming to be the wife, and a sailor who rescues her, with the Phantom having seemingly drowned. The survivors drift onto a desert beach where they're found by a passing band of slavers, who sell her as a concubine. Naturally, the Phantom had also survived and eventually tracks his wife down almost a year later, only to find that she had been pregnant when she was captured, and had given birth to a son while imprisoned.

    Fairy Tales 
  • According to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Bishop of Børglum Cloister and his Kinsmen," there was a Medieval Danish law that anyone could claim the right of salvage if a shipwreck had no survivors. The title character sends his men out whenever there's a wreck on his shore... thus there are never survivors. The story ends with a Flash Forward to reflect on how though the sea may not have changed and still wrecks ships, at least people are more decent now.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Air America: When the pilots played by Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. crash-land on an abandoned air strip in the middle of the jungle, rescue is swift in coming. Except that said "rescue" simply claims their cargo (which turned out to contain smuggled heroin) and leaves them to their fate.
  • Averted: In the opening scenes of Aliens, a deep-space salvage crew is disappointed to find Ripley still alive in stasis, because "there goes our salvage, boys". However, they resist the temptation to just kill her and salvage the shuttle anyways. Most likely because their salvaging operation was a legit business, and murder wasn't even on the table.
  • In The Cars That Ate Paris, the townsfolk make a living by causing car accidents and then scavenging the parts from the wrecks.
  • The Demoniacs is about a gang of wreckers in 19th C. northern Europe who lure ships on to the rocks, steal their cargo and murder any survivors, and what happens when two of their victims come back for revenge.
  • In the Made-for-TV Movie Desperate Voyage (1980), Christopher Plummer's character captains a ship of Ruthless Modern Pirates who respond to vessels in distress, stripping them of anything of value and then murdering the crew.
  • Diary of the Dead has soldiers encounter the main characters at one part. They order them to turn off their camera (at gunpoint no less) and when it turns back on, the soldiers are driving away with all their provisions after terrorizing them for god only knows how long.
  • The Flight of the Phoenix (2004) features a fight between the crew of the downed aircraft and an appropriate group of hostile local scavengers.
  • This is the plot of both versions of The Fog. Six of the founders of the town of Antonio Bay deliberately lured a clipper ship carrying gold intended to fund a leper colony into sinking off the coast of the town, then used the loot to fund building the town and its church. Unfortunately, on the 100th anniversary of the town's founding, the crew's vengeful spirits return from the grave to enact revenge on the descendants of the founders.
  • In the movie version of The Land That Time Forgot, the survivors of a passenger liner torpedoed by a first-world-war German sub drift for a while in a lifeboat... until they come across the sub that sank them in a fog, and pre-emptively turn the tables on the sub's crew, taking it over. (In the novel, the survivors are rescued by a British tugboat. When the tug is attacked by the same sub, the survivors and the tug's crew stage a counter boarding operation and take it over.)
  • The entire concept behind the philosophy of Municipal Darwinism from Mortal Engines — the larger and more powerful traction cities, such as London, prey upon other cities and mobile towns, capturing them and taking them apart for any resources, meaning that the entirety of Western civilisation in the film is this in some way. As Valentine states, the whole concept is unsustainable in the long run, due to the ever-shrinking numbers of mobile settlements meaning larger cities like London can't sustain themselves indefinitely. He has a solution, it's just a rather extreme one...
  • The Harrison Ford/Anne Heche movie Six Days, Seven Nights.
  • When R2-D2 and C-3PO crash-land on Tatooine in the original Star Wars movie, they are "rescued" by Jawas that sell them to Luke.
  • The Disney live-action movie version of Swiss Family Robinson features pirates:
    • The same pirates who forced the ship onto the rocks in the first place (stranding the titular family on the island) come back, and have to be scared off by the ingenious use of a quarantine flag.
    • Later, these pirates must be fought to free a female captive, if only to provide a Love Interest for the two oldest sons to bicker over.
  • In the comedy Top Secret!, Nigel was shipwrecked on a desert island. One day while fishing he was picked up by a passing freighter and gang raped by the male crew, but it turned out that he liked it.

  • The first installment of Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant revolves around this happening again and again to the refugee ship carrying hero Hope Hubris and his ever-dwindling family.
  • On Cachalot, a group of human 'salvagers' race to loot the wreckage of any floating town destroyed by the whales before any official investigators arrive. While they never killed survivors before because they didn't find any, their commander has no problem ordering the main characters be killed to protect the massive amounts of money he and his crew are making off their plunder.
  • The Crowner John Mysteries are set in Devon and Cornwall, where the coastal villages have a tradition of salvaging whatever they can from shipwrecks. As any salvage legally belongs to the Crown, many of the villages will fail to declare the shipwreck to the proper authority (the Coroner), and hide any signs of the wreck. In some extreme cases, they will murder any survivors of the wreck so there is no one to report what happened.
  • Played with in KJ Parker's Evil for Evil. Instead of being in a vehicle or something, the character wakes up in a field after being injured in a battle. The Salvage Pirates show up to collect his gear and end up taking him, too, thinking they can ransom him to the enemy. He eventually escapes after becoming ultra paranoid that they'll do just that.
  • The plot of Jamaica Inn follows a group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the loot.
  • In the Kate Shugak short story "Wreck Rights", Kate and Jim investigate a group of modern day 'wreckers', who cause truck crashes on a steep mountain and then loot the goods being transported out of the wrecked trucks. Kate even references Jamaica Inn by name.
  • A non-illegal version is in Isaac Asimov's story The Martian Way. It's a professional job where people salvage space junk and scraps of metal, rock, etc. and sell them later. They do consider stealing water, but only because a politician called Hilder limits water trade (which is scarce on Mars).
  • In two Robinson-esque novels by Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island and Two Years Vacation, again the first ships to arrive to the islands are pirate ships.
  • Older Than Radio: In the original Robinson Crusoe, the first European ship to arrive to the island (eventually rescuing Robinson) is one where the crew has mutinied, and they are described as "pirates" in the Long Title of the novel.
  • Used no less than three times in Michael Reaves' The Shattered World, every time a main character goes adrift in the Void between fragments.
    • When Beorn falls into the Void naked, he is menaced by a winged vampire; he lures it in, claiming to prefer a quick death, then gets it in a stranglehold and forces it to fly him to land.
    • When Beorn and Amber are struggling to cross the sea on a tiring gryphon, their steed is netted by a shipload of dragon-hunters, who demand the gryphon and Beorn's manual labor if they're to carry the pair to safety, not dump them overboard.
    • Finally, flashbacks reveal that when Amber and her husband Tahrynyar are cast up on Darkhaven in a storm, Pandrogas the sorcerer saves them both, but ends up stealing Tahrynyar's one remaining possession of value: Amber herself, with whom the sorcerer has an affair.
    • Used again in the sequel, The Burning Realm. When Mirrim the werewolf is left stranded alone on Stonebrow's vacated isle, the first others to arrive are pirates, whom she fools into thinking she's the resident sorceress. When an assassin is trapped in a cavern on the rim of a fragment, the being that "rescues" her is a cacodaemon, which carries her off to slavery. Reaves sure likes this trope.
  • The Ship Who Won, by Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and The Ship Errant, by Jody Lynn Nye solo: The brainship Carialle once suffered a fuel tank explosion as the result of sabotage. As she drifted in space, she detected movement on her outer hull, but was unable to generate a signal to get the attention of whoever it was. Later rescued, repaired and returned to service, Carialle re-encounters the salvagers after a considerable period of time. The younger members of the group are profoundly shocked and apologetic; they hadn't realized that the ship they had salvaged parts from was a brainship. Their leader, however, certainly knew — he stole Carialle's ID plate from the wall of the control room. He winds up going to prison for a long, long time. Carialle, however, manages to help the younger crewmembers get away, since they helped her resolve the current crisis.
  • The protagonists in "Beachworld" from Skeleton Crew are salvage pirates, although they are non-villainous examples. They try to do the right thing by rescuing the survivor of the crashed ship that they've come to salvage only to find that the planet's sand is a monstrous Genius Loci out to kill them.
  • In Snow Crash, Hiro and the Mafia goons get a boat sunk out from under them by an ex-Soviet missile submarine, and have to turn the tables on a shipload of pirates that comes to steal their life raft and kidnap them and sell them into slavery.
  • When the father in Swiss Family Robinson first sees the English ship in the bay, far away from the normal ship lanes, at first he fears that these are pirates who will threaten his family and guest rather then reuniting them with the outside world.
  • In the novel This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, Chip and Lilac find an "abandoned" boat and use it to try to escape for an island outside of the control of the supercomputer that rules the world. The first ship from the island they come across claims to be a service to rescue new "immigrants" from the mainland, but actually, the guy pulls a gun on them, steals their ship, and dumps them overboard into the sea to drown. They're rescued a few minutes later by the real immigrant rescue boat, however.
  • A version of this from The Thrawn Trilogy. Luke messed up his X-Wing's systems while escaping a Tractor Beam and is stranded light-years from anything, unable to contact anyone. Within a few hours Talon Karrde, head of a smuggling/intelligence organization, arrives on the scene claiming coincidence, and offers not only to take Luke but also his ship, for a fee. Luke is wary, thinking of exactly this trope, but if he refuses he'll just be either blasted or left to hang in the void again. Soon, though, he finds that they found him using a Force-Sensitive woman who hates him, and Grand Admiral Thrawn has put out word that he's stranded in the area and could be worth something. Normally Karrde, being both a businessman and pretty decent, would be happy to save random drifters with or without a fee, but Luke complicates a lot of things, and he considers handing him over to Thrawn. He doesn't.
  • In ''We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea'' by Arthur Ransome, the "Longshore Sharks" are described this way. Their M.O. was to locate stranded vessels, offer a friendly tow, and then claim a third of the value of the ship on the grounds that they had "salvaged" it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Andromeda: The crew of the Eureka Maru were originally planning to do this to the Andromeda Ascendant. Well, technically they weren't expecting anyone to still be alive after three centuries orbiting a black hole but their employer still brought along a few mercs on ice. Instead, the captain and the ship's AI were still there, and he actually recruited most of them into his crusade to restore the Commonwealth.
  • Invoked in Blake's 7's final episode. After crashlanding on a Wretched Hive, Avon sends out a distress call knowing someone will turn up to kill any survivors, and he can kill them in turn and steal their vehicle.
  • The Coroner: "Capsized" involves a shipwreck that deposits multiple cargo containers on the coast. The locals start looting the containers, and Jane gets involved when one of the looters turns up dead in one of the containers.
  • The first episode of the TV series Crusoe features the eponymous castaway being threatened by pirates/escaped convicts, as well as the corrupt Spanish jailers who are after them.
  • In Farscape, John became stranded in the Leviathan burial space aboard an elderly Leviathan without the fuel to reach any planet. The Leviathan is eventually boarded by salvagers looking to harvest valuable nerve tissue and they try to kill John so he can't reveal the location.
  • Firefly:
    • In "Out of Gas", a deep-space salvage crew decides they'd rather steal Serenity and kill its crew than make a trade for the one spare part needed to get the ship working again.
    • In a couple of other episodes, the crew of Serenity themselves are accused of trying to pull a similar trick, such as in "Bushwhacked". They're accused of doing the original damage and pretending to be salvaging.
    • Happens again in "Our Mrs. Reynolds", though bordering on Space Pirates, as they deliberately engineered a deathtrap in order to claim the then-derelict ship.
  • In the first-season finale of Lost, the raft the survivors built to escape from the island is met by a ship crewed by The Others, who kidnap Walt and try to kill the rest of the raft escapees.
  • The Prisoner (1967): In the episode "Many Happy Returns", Number 6 escapes the Village on a raft and encounters a fishing boat whose crew steals his belongings. He ends up fighting them and eventually captures them.
  • Star Trek: Enterprise had an episode where the Xindi brutally attack and leave the Enterprise without warp travel, making their mission hopeless. Subverted here because fortunately for them a warp ship from an explorer minor race comes by. They try to negotiate a trade for engine parts, but when the other ship's refuse, they steal engine parts by force, so it's the minor race against what should be the good guys. Even though they try to lessen the blow by giving them supplies so they can get back home, the aliens tell them they're still assholes.
  • Georgi LaForge runs into a crew of Pakled pirates in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Samaritan Snare". ("We are far from home.")
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
    • Voyager gets caught in a Negative Space Wedgie that has dozens of ships trapped inside it, which raid each other for supplies and parts to keep running. This episode was later the basis for the videogame Star Trek: Elite Force.
    • In "Extreme Risk", the conflict is over the Malon attempting to salvage Voyager's multi-spatial probe from a gas giant despite their objections.
    • In "Rise", an alien race is sending asteroids to impact a planetary colony, so they can claim the planet for themselves after everyone has been evacuated.
    • "Workforce", Voyager hits a radiation mine, forcing everyone to leave, except for the Emergency Medical Hologram who is immune to radiation. Turns out the mine was laid by Salvage Pirates who are eager to get their hands on the ship. Fortunately, the Crew of One can become an Emergency Command Hologram, who makes it clear that's not going to happen.

  • In "The Two Sisters" (Child Ballad 10) the elder sister pushes the younger sister into the river (or sea) to drown her, and she sinks and swims until reaching a mill pond. (Yes, even when thrown in the sea.) In some variants, she is still alive at this point and offers a gold chain to the miller to rescue her. The miller takes the chain and pushes her back to drown.

  • In The Navy Lark, CPO Pertwee once attempts to become a lighthouse keeper so he can lure ships on to the rocks and loot them.

    Video Games 
  • Advance Wars: Days of Ruin: After wandering aimlessly around the ruins looking for help at the beginning, Will finally manages to hail someone on the radio. Unfortunately, the person on the end is a rogue sergeant who orders his men to steal Will's weapons and supplies, and to make sure they kill him while they're at it.
  • The Daedalus Encounter: You, Zack Smith, and Ari Matheson were Space Marines fighting the Vakkar aliens. After the war ended, leaving your brain the only part of you left alive, Zack and Ari become this trope, hoping to salvage from the enemy ships they helped disable during the war. When the search turns up fruitless, Zack decides to head for the Mizar sector, where upon they crash into a huge, organic spacecraft drifting toward the nearest sun, along with an infestation of Crin aliens that slaughtered the crew inside. The only hope is for Zack and Ari to board it, along with your remote probe, and figure out a way to fix both ships in time.
  • Elite: In the original game, selling the occupants as slaves was actually the only way to get rid of an Escape Pod after you scooped it up. The remake addresses this by handing you a semi-random reward either from the distressed spacer's insurance provider or the police, depending whether or not they were wanted for anything, and if you happen to scoop up a pod containing contraband you can turn it over to the police for a token fee. Releasing a slave in this manner can sometimes earn you a very large thank-you cheque from their next-of-kin.
  • EVE Online: "Ninja salvaging" is a viable (if somewhat short) career path. The salvager won't even be marked as an outlaw if he only dismantles the wrecks for parts and leaves the cargo alone. Also, people stuck in wormhole systems can occasionally find someone to point them to an exit wormhole for a price.
  • FTL: Faster Than Light: If you run out of fuel and are drifting in space (with or without you distress beacon) there is a chance you 'rescuers' will be more interested in helping themselves to your ship.
  • Oolite: Picking up abandoned cargo and other space debris is perfectly legal, regardless of how they got there in the first place. Bounty hunting can become essentially legitimized piracy, since the player can scoop the cargo they leave behind and sell it the same way the pirates planned on exploiting their would-be victims. One especially underhanded (though still perfectly legal) method involves letting the pirates splash their targets, then swooping down on them and picking up both sides' derelict cargo.
  • Sir Raleigh, the first major enemy in Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus was regular a pirate who became one of these. He resides in a certain area racked by a storm of his own creation, and has his men take in the valuables from shipwrecks caused by it.
  • Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon begins with Roger Wilco's escape pod picked up by a salvage ship helmed by a robot; the robot is more interested in picking up space garbage than picking off Roger, but he'll do so if you get his attention. The rats present a more direct threat, stealing Roger's stuff and beating the crap out of him if he tries to make off with their loot.

    Web Comics 
  • Associated Space notably averts this trope when Fatebane and David Urquart crash-land on the Free Realm of Sarmatia, and are promptly surrounded by fierce-looking horse-warrior nomads...who promptly get them medical attention and help them on their way.
  • In Sluggy Freelance, pretty much anyone lost in Timeless Space is guaranteed to be "rescued" by space pirates.

    Western Animation 
  • Downplayed example in the Rick and Morty episode "Auto-Erotic Assimilation." Rick makes a point of checking out an alien distress beacon in case it turns out the ship is empty and full of stuff he can loot without consequence. It's not clear what he'd do if he did find survivors at least, ones that aren't possessed by his ex-girlfriend.

    Real Life