2948-06-09 - Tales from the Service: A Dropped Spanner

In a previous entry (Tales from the Inbox: Revenge of the Recycler), we discovered one of the many ways a starship's life support systems can break in unpleasant ways. Most members of the interstellar community know this only too well - after all, anyone who has plied the spacelanes for a lifetime has had to clean up after one or other of these systems when they fail in transit.

Apparently, some Navy ships designed for long cruises have been using a new human waste processing system which is just as efficient but far more light-weight. While this type of system centering around a tank of bio-engineered microbes is nothing new, the light-weight systems use a far more aggressive strain in a smaller tank, and use passive unpowered methods to limit the biomass rather than moderation drips and sensors. 

In at least four cases, these newer systems have failed under the strain of combat, but such failures are nothing new (and nothing the Navy can't handle - these new systems are designed to be simply dumped into space and replaced wholesale if they fail). The inquiry surrounding Technician Ronan Boone, however, is notable because the vessel in question was not exposed to damage in combat - instead, the sewage plant went awry during a maintenance operation in which the upper lid of the tank was open. Evidently, there is little room for a repair tech to maneuver while performing such repairs, and no room for them to make mistakes. Boone did make a mistake - and it looks likely to cost him his career, even though the design of the system seems (at least to me) to be partly to blame.

Even if the Navy comes to this conclusion and discontinues this new type of waste processor, there are dozens of ships - mainly cruisers - in Fifth Fleet with this machinery; they will be with us for the duration of this conflict.

Technician Ronan Boone dropped his spanner. 

Normally, even in the tight confines of a warship’s maintenance spaces, dropping a tool would be only an irritating mistake. Unfortunately, he did it while performing the least normal duty he could possibly be assigned. 

As the tool plummeted toward the boiling biomass below the catwalk, Ronan felt time slow down, as he realized the consequences. Eighteen inches of synthfoam grip and titanium bar-stock seemed to float lazily down through the air, giving him plenty of time to calculate that he didn’t have time to scramble for cover. Perched on the extended catwalk and securely fastened to the safety rail by his harness line, there was no way to get clear before the spanner splashed down in the bubbling surface of the sewage-processing biomass tank. 

The moment stretched out further, and Ronan’s eyes darted to his assistant, eyes looking as big as saucers in the yellow-white light of the growth lamps providing heat and light to the engineered microbes in the tank. He was already moving, turning away and running for the hatch leading back into the crawlspace, but Ronan knew he wouldn’t make it there in time either. 

The problem, he knew, was not the initial splash of noxious nutrient slurry, partly processed sewage, and biomass which would erupt from the tank. Contact with that would result in merely an hour’s decontamination and a few precautionary inoculations. The greater concern, he knew, was the tool itself. 

The biomass in the tank, Ronan knew, grew in long, snaky strands which needed to anchor themselves to surfaces to prevent them from being sucked into the exit pump and re-digested into nutrient slurry to feed the better-anchored colonies. The tank, specifically designed to allow strands to form only on about ten percent of its inner surface, perfectly moderated the amount of biomass inside to match its size – that is, moderated it until a foreign object not treated with super-slick anti-microbial nanoceramic landed inside. 

As the spanner struck the surface, it threw up globs of gray-brown biomass, which arced high up above the sides of the tank in shipboard half-gee. Ronan watched in detached helplessness as one of them arced up to impact with the jumpsuit on his shoulder, and despite the best efforts of his breathing filter, the stink of sewage seeped into his nostrils. 

The splash had barely subsided when the biomass, already greedily seeding the spanner’s surface as it sunk, began to replicate. Before Ronan’s assistant had made it five steps, the tank boiled over, and a wave of half-digested sewage overtook him before his gloved hand hit the hatch controls. Sliding, he went down just in time to be buried by a second wave of noxious slime. 

As the nutrient sludge and sewage hit the bulkheads and deck, the process accelerated, and the level began to rise quickly.  

Lazily, Ronan keyed in his comm. Things were far worse than an hour’s decontamination could cure. “Damage control to the waste processing unit.” He suggested. “We seem to be in deep shit.”