If there was one advantage of the rigours of space travel, it was precision. On Earth, the trains might run slow, a basic-assistance apartment might be five square feet smaller than intended, but the spaceships to and from Mars were always on time and positioned to line up with Charon Dock.
To call it smooth as clockwork would be a lie. Clockwork was not held to the same standards as the Earth-Mars shipments.
For the inspection crew on the rotating torus of Charon Dock, there was only one thing that really mattered as the ship entered visual range. Chief Matteo was first to speak up, "Twenty says she's freight only."
There was a clamour of cries as the crew began putting their own bets forward.
"I'll match, but she's carrying colonists only."
"Forty on mixed!"
There was laughter, loud and raucous.
"Tom, you don't have forty Mars dollars."
"I will when I win this bet." The insistence in his voice carried over the laughter and after a moment, Chief Matteo nodded and glanced around the busy canteen.
"Alright. Forty on mixed. Now quiet lads, quiet. Let's get eyes on her."
Charon Dock's telescopes focused on the dot in the distance that was the oncoming ship. The canteen's digital display resolved into the bright flare of the spaceship still thousands of kilometres away. The blinding glare of the vessel's magnetoplasma rocket drowned out its silhouette, leaving the distant ship as nothing more than a fast-moving light in the darkness. The telescopes switched their display, radar and lidar imaging replacing the visual spectrum.
There was a whoop from the back, Tom again.
"That bulge amidships, I see freight holds and cryo-space."
There was a sudden intensified silence as every man and woman present scrutinised the image with the same desperation that a man lost in the desert has for the glimpse of an oasis.
The moment passed.
"Damnit, he's right," said one.
"Well done, lad." Chief Matteo said as Tom collected his winnings.
Ereshkigal continued her steady braking until the mass conveyor was within a hundred kilometres of Charon Dock. The long, slender vessel was little more than debris shields wrapped around a fusion core, its propulsion system and its cargo spaces, utilitarian through and through.
It was a testament to the skill of Ereshkigal's crew that the vessel came to a relative stop with the orbiting Charon Dock, positioned near perfectly. Minor adjustments from the spaceship's vernier thrusters pushed it into position allowing Charon Dock's clamps to seize the vessel.
This was the most dangerous moment.
Local space became a riot of activity, a frenzy of work as manned drones detached from Charon and swarmed over the hull. It was steady, dull work, but each and every inch of the vessel needed to be checked. The vacuum of space had little forgiveness for mistakes, human or industrial.
Chief Matteo and his crew got to work with their inspection, soldering and repanelling any damaged debris shields they found as if they were descaling a gigantic metal serpent. For all its chaos, the inspections were part of an equally precise timetable. As the drones cleared the bulbous command module behind Ereshkigal's forward-mounted panels and moved amidships, two more drones began to connect tubes between the ship and its attendant dock, topping up the conveyor's air and thrust mass while removing the waste generated by thirty five days of rapid transit. Damaged panels were taken aside for reprocessing while below, on the surface of Mars, the lights that sparkled into being spoke of dropships rising up to make contact with the ship from Earth.
Matteo felt that in its own way, the work of maintaining the conveyors that travelled between Earth and Mars orbits was a reflection of the new realities that the collapsing ecosystem on Earth had taught mankind.
What was waste to the crew of the Ereshkigal would soon be delivered to Mars alongside the ship's cargo and reprocessed, recycled and given new life whether that be fertilizer or construction materials.
The maintenance crew had only just cleared the midships when the spherical dropships finished punching out of the atmosphere and began jostling for spots along Ereshkigal's frame, like parasitic cleaner fish on a shark.
Matteo could well imagine the chaos onboard as colonists were unfrozen from their cryopods, suited up and assigned to different landing groups. There was little doubt that only hull plating separated one frenzy of activity from the other.
"Ereshkigal to all orbit craft. Stand by for boil off."
Another piece of the elegant dance of logistics as the dropship pilots announced their docking and Matteo and his crew brought their drones closer and attached themselves to the long conveyor. The vessel vibrated, reverberations quivering down the length of the spaceship as tons of liquid nitrogen were passed through the thermal control system and on to Charon Dock's temporary storage, taking with it the excess heat stored during the journey to Mars.
As waste became fertiliser and damaged panels became scaffolding, so too would the spent cryogenic fluids, mostly nitrogen, become nitrates for Mars.
In time, the inspections finished. The dropships descended to their intended landing sites with their cargo and colonists, their fat, spherical shapes glowing as they re-entered the thin Martian atmosphere.
Charon Dock released Ereshkigal and the two separated as the mass conveyor burned for Earth.
For Chief Matteo and his crew, it was back to the Dock's rotating torus, back to standing ready for the next ship to come.
As Matteo returned to the orbiting station and peeled himself out from his spacesuit, he glanced through the windows and watched Mars spin beneath him.
One day, it would be him on those fading stars that dropped to the surface, their engines braking their descent.
One day, the crew of Charon would be able to end their service to the ferryman and set foot on mankind's new start.