“Look, Richard,” Mary said with a sigh, “That last piece I placed shows too much gap. I don’t think it really belongs there.”
“No, I agree it isn’t right.” He sighed, too, then clicked on a blue piece to enlarge it. “How about removing that piece and trying this one? It looks almost the same shape, except it isn’t as curved.”
Mary removed the brown piece and replaced it with the blue. It fitted almost perfectly, but changed the shape so it was no longer a cone but slightly curved. She studied it for a moment, and then placed the brown piece she’s removed, and another blue piece, and sat back to stare.
“That looks like part of a computer screen, Richard!” she exclaimed.
Just as he was about to answer, the door behind them slammed open, hit the wall with a bang, and bounced back. Thalia smacked it away as she strode in, followed by Ivan, Kelsey and Shani. They all looked as frustrated as Mary and Richard were feeling. Kelsey was carrying a box like the one that had held the pieces Richard and Mary were working with.
“There is not a sign of biologicals in this box!” he exclaimed. “The only bit there was is the red stuff Thalia found. And it’s not alien! It’s Rhodophyta! Otherwise known as Red Algae, common in our oceans and coral reefs. What kind of games is Prof. Timmons playing?”
Richard and Mary stared at the others for a stunned moment, then Richard said “Kelsey, I’m sure it isn’t the Prof. He’s too serious to play jokes. Hmmm..” he thought for a moment. “Who did you get your box from? Barney Bradley gave me mine, he said the Prof asked him to deliver it.”
“Pete Palmer brought ours. He said Prof asked him to deliver it, and tell us it was biologicals from that supposed crash with the satellite.” Ivan looked thoughtful. “Barney and Pete – the two biggest pranksters and troublemakers on campus. What do you think they did with the real stuff?”
“Good question, Ivan. Though this stuff we’ve been working with does seem to be from some kind of spaceship. Let’s see what’s in your box.”
Kelsey put the box on the table, and Richard looked at it. “Looks just like what we have. Let me try spraying some of the pieces with fixative, and see if they fit with our stuff.”
Everyone gathered around and got busy. As Richard sprayed the pieces, Thalia lifted them out and put them on slides, Shani covered them and Kelsey passed them on the Mary. They worked in silence until, after an hour, Mary said “Um, guys?” They all looked at her. She indicated the screen where the construction she and Richard had made was shown. Carefully, she started placing pieces from the second box around it. Slowly it grew, until it showed a part of a panel. On it were the faded shapes of what looked like letters. Manipulating keys, she turned the panel until the marks were in a vertical line. Working with extreme care, she closed in on the marks, brightening and sharpening them as much as possible, then stopped. They all gasped. There, partly faded out but still readable, were the letters U S S F – United States Space Fleet.
“I’ve got to tell Prof. Timmons right away. He trusted those two idiots and they decided to play a stupid trick. This will put his work back at least a month and he’s on a deadline. I wonder what they did with the real stuff.” Richard went dashing out, headed for the professor’s office.
Half an hour later he arrived back, with Prof Timmons, Barney and Pete following in the hands of campus police. Richard and the professor were carrying the boxes the boys had hidden.
“Good work, people,” the professor said. “Here is the real material. I’m amazed that you were able to put that other material together at all. No one had been able to work with it because it was so fragile. Richard, you’re fixative was a brilliant idea. We’ll let the Space force work with that now – you have got them well started. They’ll take over this microscope; you will work on the one in the Fermi building. I know you six will have this riddle answered in record time. Come along, and let’s get started.”
Three weeks later Professor Timmons presented his paper explaining just what it was that had hit the satellite, and what it meant to everyone on Earth. His six students shared the stage with him, and were honoured as co-discoverers.
“The material these young people had to work with was extremely fragile,” Professor Timmons said. “And it was their ingenuity in finding a fixative to stabilize it, and write a program to allow them to manipulate it, that made this presentation possible. Without them, I could not have done my part.” He turned and bowed to them where they sat at the back of the stage. The audience rose to their feet and applauded, as Richard, Mary, Ivan, Thalia, Kelsey and Shani stood blushing and smiling, stunned at the Prof’s commendation.