I’m going to do all of the raynotbradbury Mystery Challenges this week! The first challenge is to choose three objects in my kitchen and write a mystery story involving them. I chose an infrared thermometer, knife, and a plastic zipper bag. Perhaps it’s because I’m not quite so creative as to create a mystery story that includes a George Foreman grill or an Animal Pak.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce Sample Collection.
The spacesuit felt bulky on Lieutenant Kilkelly’s fingers. He held out the infrared thermometer and pulled the trigger to scan the surface of the station.
It didn’t take long to find what he’d been looking for, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary to his eye – just the thermometer. He took the laser indicator off the hot spot, then returned it just to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. Once their fears were confirmed, Kilkelly spoke into the microphone just below his chin, “The sensors are working. I found it.”
“What’s wrong with the hull?” Captain Popovich asked. Her voice was thick with a Russian accent, but Kilkelly hadn’t found her treasonous yet. In fact, he’d come to rely on her quick thinking and brilliance several times before. “Can you make the repairs? We don’t have much time, if he sensors aren’t faulty.”
Kilkelly saved some of his thruster fuel by pushing himself lightly from the bar on the station’s airlock. His training and previous EVA’s had given him plenty of practice, and he was able to bring himself to a perfect stop just next to the hot spot. He examined the area, then tilted his head. “I… I can’t see anything wrong, Captain. The insulation’s definitely still there, ceramic seems intact. Hull plating looks flush.”
“The computer is behind that panel. We can’t have it heating any further. Lieutenant Laghari, is there anything on the inside that could be causing the problems?”
“No,” Laghari answered swiftly. “The computer’s working normally. It’s definitely coming from outside.”
Kilkelly put the thermometer back in its holder, then took out his camera. He snapped a picture of the plate and sent it to Popovich and Laghari for analysis. Immediately after he put the camera up, he thought he saw something. “Captain,” Kilkelly spoke, “I… I might be going crazy in this cosmic radiation, but I think I just saw the hull sparkle.”
Popovich waited a moment. “I just got your image. Could you describe this sparkle? It didn’t show up on the picture.”
“It’s like a firefly. The hull just glowed, then stopped. I’ll try to-”
The hull sparkled again.
“I just missed it a second time. It’ll happen again, I’m sure-”
“We don’t have time to waste, unfortunately,” Laghari spoke. “The computer’s at critical risk. Hell, man, I’m fanning it by hand as it is.”
Popovich sighed. “Scrape whatever it is off the surface and try to collect a sample if you can. You’ve got the replacement hull plating – take the old one off and put the new one on. If that doesn’t fix the problem, we’ve got bigger issues than whatever it is you’re seeing.”
Kilkelly didn’t need telling twice. He took out a knife and popped the hull plating off. He unscrewed the screw that held it in place, then placed it in a plastic bag he’d brought for refuse. As soon as it went inside the bag, the intermittent blinking stopped. “It won’t blink inside the bag,” Kilkelly said as he zipped the plate up.
“Don’t care,” Laghari said. “Temperature in the computer room’s already started to drop.”
“Get the replacement back on the hull,” Popovich ordered. “We’ll look at the sample when you get back.”
Skilled Kilkelly screwed the new hull plate in without any issues and popped it back into place, then pushed off the hull back to the air lock door. He entered the lock, repressurized, and brought the sealed zip bag immediately to the lab where Popovich waited.
She ran an instrument over the top of the bag. “I’m getting a radioactive reading. There’s some really strange radioactive isotopes, something I wouldn’t have expected in orbit.”
“What do you think it is?” Kilkelly asked.
She shook her head. “There’s no way to tell. Whatever it was, it vaporized part of the bag – see those holes? I think the carbon dioxide breakdown products, even at such low pressures as you find in space, killed it.” She slid the sample into a vacuum chamber. “We’ll probably never know, not entirely.”
Kilkelly swallowed. He wished he could have saved whatever was on the panel. “Sorry, Captain.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Popovich said. “Sorry’s for whiny Americans and astronauts who don’t get to return to Earth once their mission is done.” She patted him hard on the back.
“I guess.” He looked longingly at the vacuum chamber. “I can’t help feeling that we were invading on its territory, not the other way around.”
Popovich nodded. “Then you’ll get over it. You Americans always do.”