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I should say: this is for a video game, not a short story or novel. Calibrate accordingly. ;)

Imagine that we solved the rocket equation with some kind of impossibly energy-dense fuel. Interplanetary space travel now happens more like something on the scale of cross-country trucking in some very distant, fictional American past. One of these truckers is flying solo on an unremarkable route that normally takes three months (one-way), and then for video-game-combat reasons they turn off their ship's reactor and play dead for 11 days in a desperate game of stealth Chicken.

Their attacker gives up after an incredibly-patient nine days. Our hero waits two more days just to be sure, and then decides it's safe to light up and move on. But there is not enough juice left in the batteries to restart the reactor! That's it: certain death. They are marooned, and it's only a matter of time. (My kingdom for a solar panel!)

What will kill our unlucky Flash Van Winkle?

I'm going to take some causes-of-death off the table, some for video-game handwavium reasons, and others because I'm looking for failure scenarios I don't know about.

  • they won't run out of edible food or potable water (this time)
  • the ship won't break down
  • nothing will randomly collide with it

Also, some precautions have been taken against obvious causes of death:

  • there are space heaters with their own batteries, charged to 100% right before hibernation; neither the heaters nor their batteries are magically efficient, but they may be closer to optimal than we have today
  • there are plants all over the ship; these ships are designed to maximize plantable surface area, and the plants are varieties cultivated for use as last-ditch life-support; think "best-case" but not magic
  • if the atmosphere would give out before the temperature, assume those systems share batteries such that both systems last as long as whichever would last the longest on its own

Finally, there is no rescue for this pilot. I want to know about the bad ends. So:

  • they can't generate or scavenge enough energy to restart the reactor
  • they don't have any solar panels
  • nobody will come looking for them
  • nobody will stumble across them in time to save them
  • the radio can't be used to call for help

So, what will cause the death our unlucky Rip Van Winkle (and how long until it happens)?


P.S.: I'm asking so that I can tell the player what killed them if they wind up in this situation, not so that I can flesh out the details of some magical way to avoid that death.

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    – L.Dutch
    Feb 9 at 16:37

18 Answers 18

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A Million Ways To Die in the West Black

Let's face it, there are way too many ways this can end. I mean, yeah, it all starts with stupid, but the endings themselves are just too varied to cover in any detail. (And yes, shutting down your drive without a guarantee that you can start it back up again is a stupid, convoluted way to commit suicide.)

Humans die for a few tens of thousands of reasons, but the following broad categories seem to be fairly likely in this case:

  • Asphyxiation - not enough O2 or too much of other things.
  • Nutrition - from running out of food to specific deficiency.
  • Trauma
  • Suicide

Yeah, those are pretty broad and immediate. Let's step back to earlier causes that can lead to one or more of the above.

Power

Either you're running on stored power (batteries, capacitors, flywheels, whatever) or you have a way to generate power from some long-term source. If it's stored power then you probably don't have much time. Same with limited generated power. Long-term generation from things like RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) last for a long time, but they don't tend to produce a particularly high output - great for powering pacemakers, not so good for spaceships.

You need power to produce the lights that keep your air plants alive and producing oxygen for you to breathe. You need it to run the fans that move air around the spaces on the ship to stop toxic buildup of CO2 and so on. You need it for heat or cooling, depending on the thermal balance in the area of space you're traversing. And there are probably a ton of other things sucking up your power - better to disconnect everything that isn't on the critical list.

When the power finally dries up though? The air stops moving and CO2 builds up in concentrated pockets wherever you are. Stop moving for 10 minutes or so and you'll use up all of the oxygen in your local space and end up sitting in a growing concentration of CO2. If you're lucky you'll pass out from lack of oxygen before the fire in your lungs gets too unbearable.

Asphyxiation is, I'm told, a particularly dreadful way to go.

Food

Unless you're hauling a cargo of food and dietary supplements, odds are that you're only carrying a couple of months worth of food in the galley. Mostly the extra food is for the sake of variety and emergencies, but eventually you're going to run out. You can ration it, reduce your energy expenditure to extend it somewhat, but at some point you're going to open your last freeze-dried ration pack.

What then? You can eat some of your air plants - spinach is apparently quite good at producing oxygen - but it's far from a completely balanced nutritional intake. And each plant you eat is a little less oxygen generation until it grows back. You can live indefinitely on the right blend of vegetables, but do you really have enough room in your truck to grow a nutrionally complete crop? I very highly doubt it. For one thing the amount of plant growth you can support is limited by your personal CO2 output.

At some point you're going to start developing problems due to a lack of some critical vitamin or mineral in your diet. If you're lucky it'll be vitamin C and your teeth will fall out. If you're not and you run short on niacin (vitamin B3) due to a lack of peanuts or grains in your meagre crops then you can look forward to some quite nasty symptoms before the dementia makes you incapable of looking after yourself. At least you won't be around to experience most of it I guess.

And don't forget that you need plenty of power for those plants to grow. They need light to photosynthesize and heating or cooling to maintain an optimal temperature range.

Heat

Depending on where you are and how your hull is insulated against the external environment, you're either going to be losing heat or gaining it. You want to be losing heat because there are a few ways to easily generate it. Too much heat buildup on the other hand is a major problem because there aren't too many simple ways to get rid of it. You can shuffle it around a bit, but in the end you'll run out of thermal capacity and start to boil. Or bake.

Too cold isn't an issue so long as you have a good long-term energy supply. Running heating elements on batteries is a very short-term solution, and you need that power to keep your life support systems pushing oxygen around the ship. It's enough that you have to keep the air (and food) plants at a consistent temperature, wasting power on heating the ship as well isn't going to prolong your life much.

Assuming that you have a good supply of canned O2 and scrubbers, you might be able to survive for a while after the power goes off. If you extend it long enough you get to sit in the frozen ship while the heat is leeched from your body, dropping your core temperature closer and closer to the hypothermia zone. Circulation cuts off to your extremities and unimportant things like fingers and toes die and start to rot. Gangrene takes a while to set in, by which point your body is already in a near hibernation state. Your brain shuts down and never starts up again. Eventually everything stops and, as the temperature drops further, the water in your cells turns to ice, expands and tears your cells into pieces. Even if they find your corpsicle in a few thousand years, you're never coming back from that.

In the other direction your body heats up and you sweat out every ounce of moisture you can spare. Dehydration starts to break down your ability to process information, and eventually the various processes in your body that rely on all that extra water hanging around stop working. Organs shut down and so on. A little after you die the proteins in your body are denatured by the heat and you cook all the way through.

Either option sounds fairly excruciating to me. I'm going to go ahead and guess about a 13 on the standard 1-10 scale of nastiness.

System Failures

Ooh, there are just so many of these it's hard to know where to start. You're driving a glorified truck after all, you're almost certainly not carrying the sort of spare parts needed to fix everything that can go wrong. You have backup systems for most of the really important stuff, maybe even double or triple redundancy for the critical bits, but 90% of the time when something breaks you can't do a damned thing about it. And if what breaks is something critical to life support, temperature regulation or power distribution then... yeah, it's not going to be fun.

This is also where your main options for physical trauma come in. Attempting to disassemble things, diagnose them and make whatever repairs you're able to while in transit is a potentially dangerous task. You just have to slip up once in the right way to lose a limb or end up trapped in a piece of equipment. Heck, just failing to secure a heavy chunk of tech and having it drift into you at an inopportune moment might be sufficient.

Or perhaps you screw something up and let the air out. We've all seen Total Recall, right? You know, the one with Arnie? He survived the low pressure on Mars for long enough to truly, deeply regret being exposed to it before he was saved by Deus Ex Machina. I'm afraid you're not going to be so lucky if you pierce the wrong seal.


And that's by no means an exhaustive treatment. I never touched on disease, for one thing. Or poison. Or... and so on.

Ultimately, whatever the case, it's probably going to be nasty. You're going to have to figure out how far your character will take it before they take a walk out an airlock or stick a needle of poison in their veins. It's probably the better option once you've confirmed there's no way out.

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Those emergency rations and plants growing everywhere were designed to buy a few months. As the rations decline and some types of the on board plants die off, dietary imbalances will occur. Scurvy is unpleasant, but there are other things that will kill you faster. To borrow from a very old school video game, the last thing the player will see is a green sign that says:

You have died of dysentery.

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They try to Macgyver their way out, but it's not enough

This plucky protag of yours isn't gonna take dying in space lying down. If the life support batteries are fully charged why not try jump-starting the reactor batteries with them? This can fail in all kinds of ways. Life support is down which could expedite what would have been a slower death. They could also mess up the wiring and blow up the ship. There are many more ways this line of action can fail and you could choose whichever method makes the most thematic sense either for your character or your story.

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  • $\begingroup$ even just electrocution trying to wire the heater batteries to the reactor pumps without proper kit $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Feb 7 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ I really like the idea of telling the player that their character inadvertently caused their own death trying to jury-rig an escape. It helps establish that the hero has a never-say-die attitude, but it doesn't insist that attitude beats physics. Nice opportunity for some storytelling. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ This also gives an opportunity, if desired, for player interaction in deciding how they die ("do you wire life support to the reactor, or do you ....") although it's worth being careful with that so you don't give the impression you can do something to get out of that situation if you only picked the right option. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 at 16:29
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Poverty

The trucker is on a three month flight. The last two years have taught us that humans are just fine (though whiny) in isolation. Radio communications are very effective in space, given that nothing blocks them, and the first thing the trucker would have done upon spotting pirates is call for help. Because the coast guard manual says so.

The trucker drifts for a few months, but is off course, however, the coast guard of the destination is:

  1. Aware of the fact a ship destined for their port has gone dark after calling for help
  2. Are surely keeping tabs on large fast moving objects within their airspace

In addition to that last point, trade routes would likely be monitored for large objects by radar and passive observation methods. A ship would never go long without being detected, even while going dark, because these systems would be designed to advise traffic of space trash.

The trucker is rescued by the coast guard, is chided for not cooperating with the pirates and issued a fine for putting others' lives at risk by operating their vehicle in the dark.

The trucker, being a minimum wage employee of a small company, has to sell their rig in order to pay the fine and becomes stranded on a distant world with no home or job.

They die of dysentery huddled up in a cardboard box under a bridge.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer directly contradicts the harsh, unsatisfying, but quite clearly stated premises of the question. $\endgroup$ Feb 7 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeSerfas Point out exactly which premises are contradicted $\endgroup$
    – Muuski
    Feb 8 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ The question explicitly states that "Finally, there is no rescue for this pilot." As such this could be set in the wild frontiers where the 'coast guard' simply does not exist or all other ships would assume it is a trap and ignore the distress signal. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Feb 8 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ There is absolutely no indication in the question that there is a 'coast guard' or that the area is patrolled by any law enforcement organization. The hopes of finding a completely derelict ship with no transmissions is nil. The OP has specifically said that the person dies. This entire answer is completely based on facts not in evidence, and it is a non-starter. It completely re-writes the question in order to fit a pre-conceived answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ What part of' ":Finally, there is no rescue for this pilot. " clearly written in the question indicates this is a potential answer? $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 20:29
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Either suicide, or suffocation in the dark

You mention using plants as a last-ditch life support system - but photosynthesis isn't free. A plant is just another form of life support system that requires energy (in the form of light) to turn carbon dioxide into food and oxygen. It probably isn't even the most efficient method of converting CO2 to O2.

You said they won't run out of food. Evidently, this is because they have enough food to last until the batteries expire. And sooner or later, they will. Unless they are near a sun, they will need to burn energy to keep the plants or artificial oxygen systems working.

Cold probably isn't going to be an issue, at least for a while. Contrary to what many believe, keeping spaceships warm isn't hard, because space is pretty much the best insulator there is. Keeping them cool is the hard part, since all systems generate waste heat as long as they are running. Even a tiny space heater will be more than enough to keep him warm, especially if he sticks to one room.

The space trucker could prolong survival for a while by routing energy to the places that need it the most. The lights will be the first to go, and the life support will likely be the last. So unless he decides to kill himself in some other way (shutting down the carbon monoxide scrubbers would probably be the optimal method), he will ultimately suffocate in the dark.

(Note: if the ship IS reasonably close to a star - even a little bit inside Earth's orbit - a big part of the life support systems will be dedicated to keeping the inside of the ship cool. In this case, once the systems fail, your trucker will probably be baked to death very quickly.)

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    $\begingroup$ Sincere question: do CO2 scrubbers require power? $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom of course they do, there's a bunch of pumps and heaters involved. Apparently the scrubbing systems used in ISS can require 1-1.5kW (here's a description of one design of such a system ttu-ir.tdl.org/bitstream/handle/2346/86440/…) $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Feb 8 at 4:48
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Ummm, old age?

After a long life of solitary confinement, singing the same songs umpteen million times, watching the same videos over and over, slowly going mad, delirium sets in. The 'hero' slowly gives up caring for personal needs, gets progressively weaker through neglect, falls asleep and never wakes up, mostly because the mind and soul have given up.

It would be a very bleak lifestyle, something that no human could survive mentally intact and NOT want to end it with death.

Addendum

As for the power source that could maintain emergency survival capacity, I would suggest a human-powered generator, much like a stationary bicycle. It could provide day-to-day power and recharge batteries, but certainly it would not provide enough power to restart a reactor core. I mean, what else is there to do but pedal for 12 to 16 hours every day? With high efficiency superconductors and super-magnets, it could easily be speculated that there would be enough power for survival, especially if nutrition came from vats instead of growing plants. Think mushrooms. Wait - a diet of only mushrooms is a really good reason to 'pack it in'. That would be a fate worse than death, methinks.

But then again, it IS a 'truck'. Just think - a lifetime supply of pre-packaged never-go-stale Twinkies.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, old age was what I was thinking after the OP stipulated that all the plausible avenues of death were blocked by very good batteries. (Batteries with essentially infinite capacity which still, for some reason unknown to man, could not be bundled up to supply enough power to restart the motor.) Even without going mad you'd eventually die. A modern hermit's death with an immaculate view and infinite opportunity for reflection: Der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir. Plus, infinite opportunity for distraction with any media ever produced in store ... $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 15:43
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Heat.

The only way to be truly stealthy in space is to avoid emitting heat. Everything you do generates waste heat (thanks, Newton), possibly with some technical exceptions around heaters. Space vehicles need to work to shed their waste heat (eg., the ISS's External Active Thermal Control System, making up the wavy white panels that a lot of people think are solar panels).

If the ship can go into "stealth mode" without magic technology, it's able to somehow prevent itself from radiating that waste heat out into the rest of the universe. That heat has to go somewhere.

The ship might have the ability to concentrate excess heat into eject-able containers (hopefully ejecting away from the pirates' thermal cameras), but that's a limited resource. It might just have a large thermal mass, but that's still a limited resource.

While in stealth mode, it's getting warmer and warmer in the ship. In low-power mode, it takes a couple of weeks to reach the point of no return, heat-wise: even if the active cooling systems are activated, they can't handle the built-up heat already in the ship. Depending on how mean you want to be, that could mean that the trucker is roasted, they could die of dehydration when the ship's water recyclers/stock can't keep up with the trucker's increased needs, or some component in the ship could fail to heat stress causing the ship to explode and giving the poor trucker a quick death.

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  • $\begingroup$ smart answer!!! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Feb 8 at 12:54
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Stone Cold Psychology

They are already living in the far future. They have a sixth sense impression that GOD has it in for them, and nothing they do can possibly prevent death. Should they wait around for days, months, years, trapped in a tin can with nothing to do, nothing that can matter, waiting for a random and painful death? Or should they knock themselves out and freeze to cryogenic temperatures, in the hope that one day it will finally be possible to reassemble shattered cells, tissues, and organs into the semblance of a live human being again, and one day they may be found once the lonely trade route has turned into a paved and settled highway between the stars?

They may think about it a while. But this only can end one way.


Note that such a response generally should not be categorized as a suicide. I'm reminded of misguided news reports after 9/11/1 that described the act of jumping from the buildings that way, even though the alternative was certain immolation. The day before, clearly, it would have been suicide, but that day, it was a brave decision by those seeking the last best chance at life. Even the reporters believed a yarn about someone falling to the ground unharmed, and they weren't standing in a fire.

The philosophy on board this ship would be more complex than that, because the crew would need to decide against what might be a good chance of living a fairly long but entirely pointless life, followed by an unplanned death with very little chance of a medical resurrection. A closer comparison might be made to an enlisting soldier, whose actions might be viewed as heroism or suicide depending on the loyalties of the observer. Given a plan to turn the ship into a stable tomb, the feelings of those who think they can leave behind a Great Novel before going gentle into the night might be in hard conflict with those who feel cut off from whatever gives them purpose, whether it be family or research publications. Quite a philosophical journey might be written for that single-set stage.

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    $\begingroup$ What's in the cave? Only what you take with you. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Feb 6 at 19:57
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My first thought is that if they don't freeze then the waste gases that plants don't take up are going to be the first thing that might kill them. The slow build up of, in no particular order, carbon monoxide, nitrogenous, and sulfurous oxides would be the killer. I wouldn't expect them get the chance to die a lingering death though, if they have enough heating to not freeze to death then they won't have effective stealth, the raider is going to spot their hull at over 200K above ambient and come after them.

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    $\begingroup$ Plants consume CO. Yum it up. homeguides.sfgate.com/houseplants-carbon-monoxide-92555.html Plants will also consume some other chemicals out of the air such as volatiles from several common cleaning solutions. It is part of the reason that shopping malls often have ficus benjamina (weeping fig) trees planted. trinjal.com/plants-that-absorb-carbon-dioxide $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Feb 6 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Dan Huh I was under the impression plants had the same problem processing CO as animals do, close enough to bond for transport but not usable in cell metabolism, glad to learn something new. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Feb 7 at 1:23
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While stealthing only needed machinery was active - all others off - this included the Slurp-O-Tron, small robots cleaning dust and condensation puddles away.

To lengthen available survivability time the sole surviver does not activate them again.

Dripping condensate kills him: he slips in a puddle and breaks his neck.

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    $\begingroup$ Point taken: neglecting regular maintenance invites all kinds of pedestrian mishap, and if you're all alone, that can be all it takes. By the same token, it's entirely possible the marooned player swallows their abundant potable water wrong and chokes to death. These will both have to go on the list. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:57
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Maybe they don't need to die this time.

I am sure they die in many ways in this game. But for this scenario, maybe they don't need to. They persist in the ship. They endure. They are rescued 8 years later by an alien merchant, or space pirate, or an asteroid cult, or a charitable FLANG HOUND (mix it up for each instance). They swear never to go to space again and they spend the rest of their days working on a tunicate ranch in Bali. Their days turn out to be many. Life is good!

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    $\begingroup$ I am 100% going to find a way to use "flang hound" in this game. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ I found the reference My, there's more internet to be discovered in the past than in the future. $\endgroup$ Feb 11 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeSerfas - I appreciate you taking the trouble! That halfbaked idea made me laugh out loud. Then the FLANG HOUND came with me and has hung out in my vicinity ever since. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 12 at 2:12
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The Hero uses the remaining battery to broadcast their last words

If the hero knows they'll die alone where no one will find them they'll probably want to find some form of solace and wouldn't mind giving up the last few days or weeks of their life to do so. Perhaps the radio isn't powerful enough as is to send a message in deep space, but the hero could boost the signal with more power... at the expense of life support. The hero's final message could be a great story telling device. It could be a warning, a will, a one liner, a meta joke of some kind whatever best suits the tone of your game and character.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd think a recording, not a broadcast, under the assumption that the recording is likely to survive for years -- long enough for the ship to be discovered. Reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:53
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They don't actually die

If the settings medical technology is advanced enough, they might try to jury rigg a cryogenics unit. Given that they are adrift in space without a radio signal, they are probably lost for centuries. If the medical technology for cryogenics exists, this is the reasonable thing to do. If it doesn't... well you got centuries of medical advancement on your side. You don't actually got forever, as after about 2000 years the radioactive decay of your own bodies potassium will have damaged you to the point where you would die instantly.

So, speak a prayer to the maschine-god, step into the freezer and wake up in the future. (Or don't, the beauty of the arrangement is that failure has no concrete consequences.)

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the option I would pick. Between being sitting ducks in space, the endless loneliness, the oppressive cramped rooms, I would not like to try and wait for anyone to stumble upon me. In the best case scenario, I would either try to have some SOS-beacon or rig a lamp pointed out of a window flashing SOS, before going into cryosleep. This is to improve the amount of time I have left to be rescued. I might even place some wake-up times every year to see if my flashing light still works if those aren't too detrimental to further cryosleep. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Feb 9 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ @vinzzz001 A lamp is inefficient and an active system. Use the vessels manufacturing capabilities to manufacture solarsails which reflect strongly in the most common sensor (lidar & radar) frequencies. Put them out around the vessel in an orthogonal configuration with the vessel at the center, then spin the vessel to stabilise the sails. These could easily be several square kilometres in size, as nanometer metal sheets with carbon nanotube structures will be very durable. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 at 13:21
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Weight Loss (sort of)

A spaceship with a sublight (slower than the speed of light) engine is going to travel by accelerating for the first half of the journey, and then decelerating during the second half. As such the ship isn't going to bother creating its own gravity (if such a thing is even possible) - the acceleration will function as gravity for it.

This means that when the engines are of, there's no gravity. Now, the ship will be designed to handle zero gravity for short periods of time (a couple of weeks at least). But long term zero-g is surprisingly bad for the human body, and a ship designed primarily for use in gravity will have some functions that weren't properly designed for extended zero-g either. Either the sewage will get blocked up, or the air won't filter properly, or a joint normally held in place by friction will float into an unexpected position, and eventually something critical will break.

Or maybe the traveler tries to spin the ship for gravity, and something breaks under the stress of trying to do a maneuver it was absolutely not designed for.

If you're talking about interplanetary travel, constant 1g acceleration will get you anywhere you want much faster than you want for your plot to work (three weeks gets you to the Kuiper Belt) so presumably your ships are using less than 1g acceleration. Still, the difference between low gravity and microgravity is enough to cause problems.

If you're talking about interstellar travel then you need much higher g forces, so we'll assume they invented an inertial dampener or something.

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  • $\begingroup$ Inertial dampeners aren't necessary if the engines thrust at ~1g, possibly with some ramp up/down time around the turnaround point. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Feb 7 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ @minnmass - it they're staying in the solar system then yes, 1 g works. If the OP wants couple-month travel times to another solar system, then 1g is nowhere near enough. $\endgroup$ Feb 7 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ True, but I read the question as in-system. Out of system requires something like 20gs of acceleration to get to Alpha Centauri in 3-ish months, which would definitely result in crew-goo. In-system, 1-ish g should usually result in "reasonable" transit times. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Feb 7 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, the scenario I'm imagining is in-system travel $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 8 at 2:32
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No one will ever know

They might as well have disappeared into the vastness of space. Space is a desert of haystacks, so once a needle is lost it'll likely never be found.

All you have to do is tell the player they're trapped on a ship that is adrift and they simply vanish, never to be seen or heard from again. Their ship is entered into the registry of missing ships. But the derelict is never found. Eventually they are declared dead and the ESS Yourname Heer becomes a somewhat famous ghost ship.

Sure, something eventually kills them. It always does, in the end. But you've set this up so in-universe no one will ever know, so lean into the mystery.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is probably the best solution. Readers/players can come up with far more interesting imaginations of what happened than anything you could tell them. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 at 16:21
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Create a list of ways the player spends their life

If you hand-wave food and water, and you're willing to hand-wave medical things and heat/power, the player will survive for several decades, then die and leave something behind that probably no-one will recover. Say what they do in that time. Maybe they write a great Martian novel, or several synthesiser songs that would have made the Top 40 if they ever got played. Maybe they become a world-champion level Solitaire player. Maybe they practice meditation, until the years fly by like seconds. Maybe they pump iron until they break an arm and lose it all. Maybe they build a telescope using ice and patience, and watch the stars. Maybe they go mad and start carving faces into the ship bulkheads and equipment.

By making a random list, but one that the player can be reasonably confident they've seen all the options for, you can add some kick to the "lost in space" screen, so the player never quite knows what's going to happen when they die in space. This will make the player feel an anticipated loss harder than a normal death.

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In a mind burp, I have forgotten about the thermal radiation in space, so I had to take down my previous answer.

But the issue of thermodynamics still stands. So, the issue is this - he will die, when his life-support system runs out of energy.

You specify that he can't use the batteries of the life support system to restart the engine, so they should be quite small. And it doesn't matter, whether the life support is organic, like plants, or a machine of any sort, it still would need an energy input to run (grow lamps and irrigation, in case of plants, for example).

So, however effective his life support system is, it wasn't expected to work without engine input for long either. If you do not want food or water to run out first, then the oxygen processor or thermal regulation fail.

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As systems shut down, slowly, one after another, our hero uses what energy he has left to drift towards an empty but Earth-class planet.

The ship gets grabbed by gravity. He has the choice: burn up and die quickly, or try for a bumpy landing. He survives the landing, mortally injured, and crawls out of the wreckage with his plants to kick-start evolution with his last gasp...

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