The automated checklist only found two issues. Remarkably few for a transport of this age. The backup starboard data bus had a connection issue and one of the xenon tanks is losing some pressure again. Nothing too serious. It‘d be enough for the departure burn. After that, I‘ll pump the remaining fuel into other tanks. I will have to take a look at that data bus issue in a few days anyway and while there I can check on that tank. When I arrive at the science station at Mars L2 I‘ll either know which replacement parts to get or have fixed the issue. Knowing my technical skills: Probably the former.
The departure burn will take almost an hour. The acceleration is barely noticeable. No wonder with my decades-old half eroded ion engines pushing 56 standardized interlocking space transport containers (SISTCs). The computer ignites the engines automatically at the correct point in time. The only reasons humans are still present in spaceflight is because we are pretty darn good at fixing problems and improvising and even the best computers are not. Remote control is not an option either, due to the speed of light delaying communication. It is going to be a long flight. About 260 days. There are a few other cargo ships using the Earth-Mars transfer window today. The next time a transfer will be this cheap is in two years. So I could chat with those. But most of the pilots are annoying idiots. I prefer solitude anyway. You kind of have to. The flight would be unbearable otherwise. I could watch the movies being broadcast over the solar system. I definitely will. As always. But I decided to read more. So I downloaded a whole bunch of books. I actually brought some of the expensive physical ones. I once considered bringing a cat. But most adapt poorly to the lack of gravity and their hairs clog the air filters. And the naked ones look like I imagine aliens looked if they existed. Also, their food costs too much money for me to afford. So I lean back into my gravity couch, pull one of the monitors towards my face from what could be considered above my head and open up the first book. I feel at home here. I love my ship. I have never given it a name, even though I have lived here for years. I mean it has a name. “ERS 176-0505/013”. One of the previous owners had called it “Hercules”. It is written on some of the inventory badges and previously the outside of the ship, although that has been painted over by another – or the same – previous owner. The computer informs me that one of the engines is slightly underperforming, extending the burn another 6 minutes and leading to a 13% reduction in my fuel margin. But there is nothing I can do about that now. It’ll be fine.
It has been 28 earth days since my departure. Well, my sleep cycle extended, so it has been more like 20 days for me. The data bus issue just magically resolved itself. I have no clue what it could have been. I thought it was a stuck bit due to the Van Allen radiation in one of the container’s interface controllers. I have no clue where that container had been previously. But these don’t usually fix themselves. I am no engineer.
FUCK. Something just happened. We are just over the halfway point. In case you were wondering. The ship just shook. It is not supposed to do that. It is supposed to stay basically motionless throughout the entire transfer. Something just got fucked. One of the SISTCs sends an error message over the bus. “TSCE-0451”. Very descriptive. I check the transport manual of that container. Wow. It is the top secret one. Second from the back. I scroll through the pages. Destination. Legal shit. Acceleration limits. Handling instructions. Error codes… 451… “Breach of main pressure vessel”. That does not sound good. “Material: Unspecified [Non-corrosive]”. That’s at least something. I am pulling down the digital periscope. The crew “department” (room really) is at the very front of the ship. It is shaped more or less like a cube with things sticking out. I am looking along the two rows of containers locked into one another. At the very end of the ship, there is the drive section containing most of the tanks, a small reactor, and the engines. I zoom in on the periscope. I can see the leak. A white container on the very back has a cone-shaped white plume coming out of a valve integrated into the shell. SHIT. This is gonna throw me off course. I am gonna miss Mars by gigameters or even worse crash into it. I hit some buttons on a touch screen to turn back on tracking on the ship to determine the course. The maneuvering thrusters should be able to handle that. Only a fraction of a meter per second difference. What does the manual say on how to seal the leak? Go out there and close a valve manually‽ Are they kidding? Why is that not motorized? Shit.
I started cleaning up all the loose stuff floating around the cabin and packing it into random pressurized and unpressurized lockers. I should have really taken more care of the cabin. I never thought I’d need it. I knew there could always be a situation where I’d have to depressurize the cabin with only little preparation time. Like, as an abstract concept. My previous EVAs had always been planned. Not now. And it had to happen quickly. Wrappers. Unused underwear. Tools. Detachable tablets and other devices not in their correct slots. Where does that screw belong? It’s not important right now. I unhook the rubber bands holding the spacesuit inside the little niche in front of the hatch. How I hate this thing. It is probably even older than the ship. The inside reeks of other people’s sweat. All the rubber joints that have probably never ever been very loose have hardened over time. It also has quite a lot of technical issues. One of the helmet lights is broken and I don’t think anyone manufactures these bulbs anymore. Worst of all: The backup oxygen scrubber has been clogged for as long as I had had that suit. So if the main one blows I’m screwed. I have to contort myself to get into the suit. It was made for people of a totally different build. After minutes of struggling, I finally get in the suit sealed up. I turn off the safeties and depressurize the cabin.
Two minutes later the green lamp lights up and I can pull the rectangular hatch into the cabin. I stick my head out into space. The sun is blinding without an atmosphere in the way. I look down the length of the narrow ship. I cannot even see the leak from here. It is hundreds of meters away at the end of a seemingly endless chain of SISTCs. I hook my safety carabiner into a wire on the outside of the cabin and grip the first handrail. This is going to take a while. I sigh and turn on the audio newsfeed broadcast all the time. I have a button set up for that on my underarm display. Nothing interesting seems to be going on outside of my little ship. I reach the first container, hook my safety tether to the handrail running down the SISTC and push myself along its edge. NOVASTEEL INDUSTRIES. Never heard of them. Probably some low-end asteroid ores. I should really have read the cargo manifest.
Parallel to the handrail, there are a few tubes and wires. Not in any sort of casing since this is pretty much the cheapest SISTC you can get. They carry power and oxygen from the reactor in the back to the front where the cabin is. Each SISTC interfaces with the next and thus provides a continuous system. The containers can also tap into the power and gas supply. Some are pressurized with nitrogen to not expose their contents to the vacuum of space. The faulty container seems to tap into the ship’s oxygen supply. I am losing pressure in that system since the malfunction half an hour ago. And apparently there only is a manual valve connecting it to the main pipe. Those things should be illegal. I should have locked down the port side oxygen pipe and hoped that I can resolve the issue before anything in the other containers gets damaged from a lack of oxygen. Well, it is too late now. The text to speech voice on the newsfeed calmly informs me that an iron refinery on Mars had a minor meltdown with no casualties. Nothing really too important.
I reach the faulty SISTC. There is an access panel near the leak. I rip it open. The panel is not hinged and floats off into space. Shit. A tiny monitor displays the same error code I got in the cabin. I think. Or at least something similar. There are a bunch of valves. I start turning the one labeled “oxygen master valve”. The venting stops after a few seconds. What caused that malfunction anyways? I open up a bigger panel on the side of the container. Carefully this time. The inside of the container looks like the engineering section of a spaceship. There are wires and pipes running everywhere, connecting tanks and computers housed inside. Way too many LEDs blinking in different colors. Can anyone actually tell anything about the status of the payload by looking at these? I think not. At the core of the container is another huge pressure vessel illuminated by my helmet light. I recognize this. It is a modified livestock transporter. What the frack‽ I don’t ever transport living things. I don’t even have a license to do that. I am going to report this first thing when I get back! Frustrated I close up the access panel and turn the handle to lock it into place.
While I am back here I might as well check on the xenon tank issue. I make my way over the last container to the engine section. One of the peripheral tanks used during refueling or fuel pumping indicates an issue with a red LED. I examine it closely. One of the connecting hoses became brittle and has tiny cracks. Maybe I can just get that hose replaced. It might be cheaper than replacing the entire tank. So I can make my way back. I turn around. Did I not lock the access panel on that faulty SISTC? For some reason it has swung open again, suspending the door into the void of space. Something else appears to be there. Dark tentacles, barely contrasting with the blackness of space behind. One of them opening the hatch to its fullest. They push against the walls of the SISTC and something massive starts to pull itself out of the livestock transporter, extending some if its tentacles towards me.