“The Great Popsicle! It’s melting!” Jeffers burst into the galley, panting heavily.
“What? It can’t be!” Sally looked up from her sandwich, panicked. “We need that popsicle!”
“Stop it, Jeff; we’ve had enough of your practical jokes,” Oscar said, not even turning from the sink, where he was washing dishes.
It was true; Jeffers was a bit of a practical joker. He was always coming up with new ways to “make life interesting”, in his words. The rest of us thought it was a bit annoying, but we put up with it. Jeffers may have been a nuisance at times, but he was also brilliant with numbers, engines, and anything that moved. Besides, he was our friend and a member of our crew. And out here, there wasn’t much we could do if we did get tired of him.
Sally looked sheepish. “You always get me, Jeff.” She heaved a sigh of relief, glad that our world wasn’t about to end.
There were four of us out here. Jeffers had come up with the idea for the ship, though we had all helped to build it. He was technically our captain, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His freckled face was always covered with a mischievous grin, and his red hair stuck out in all directions. Oscar was our cook. He was a wizard with preserved food, though we had a big enough freezer on board to take plenty of perishables along. Oscar was also the only one who was never fooled by any of Jeffers’ pranks. His dark eyes could see through any scheme right away. Sally, as the one with the most foresight, was in charge of our expenses. She kept track of our supplies and what we’d need to replenish at the next space-port. She was also skilled in first aid. I was in charge of making sure the engine didn’t explode, routine maintenance around the ship, and maintaining the ship’s log.
This last was especially important because the ship was actually a school project, for our Stellar Navigation course. It was a core class, so we all had to take it. The assignment was to take a spacecraft out for one week, but for us overachievers, we couldn’t use a preexisting spacecraft. Especially since Jeffers was an Engineering major. He decided we were going to build our own craft, and the rest of us, after persuading the professor to offer us extra-credit for it, agreed. Our ship was built mostly along standard lines, but Jeffers insisted on some creativity.
“What’s the point of building our own ship if it looks just like all the others?” he’d asked us, and we were forced to agree. Therefore, the Creativity (as our ship was called) had several quirks. One of these was a giant popsicle that was used to maintain the ship’s temperature. Another was that our gravity simulation program was plugged into something that looked like a giant doughnut, complete with frosting and sprinkles, though the doughnut wasn’t edible. At least the popsicle’s shape actually had something to do with temperature. If the Great Popsicle melted, we’d be in danger of freezing. That’s what Jeffers had been joking about a moment before. Our week of space-travel was almost over. We’d had a few minor difficulties, but had dealt with them all successfully. If nothing else went wrong, we would make it back to campus in a few hours, turn in our ship’s log, and receive our marks. I guess with our top marks so close, Jeffers felt there was no harm in a little joke.
“I’m not joking!” Jeffers insisted. “It really is melting!”
Sally laughed. “Yeah, right. Sure. The popsicle is melting, so we’re all going to burn to death.”
“No, it really is melting,” Jeffers repeated. “And we’re not going to burn, we’re going to freeze.”
“If we’re going to freeze, what’s making it melt?” Sally asked, not willing to be taken in again.
“Forget it, Jeff,” Oscar advised. “We’re not biting.”
I frowned. Sitting in my cosy corner of the galley, holding a steaming mug of tea, it was hard to imagine freezing to death because of a popsicle melting. And Jeffers was always trying to pull one over on us, but still, something felt off. Jeffers didn’t usually joke about things this serious. I stood up. “I’ll go and have a look, then I’ll let you know what’s going on.”
“You don’t believe him, Pheobe, do you?” Oscar asked me sceptically.
“For something this serious, I think I have to. I’m in charge of maintenance, remember?” Worst case scenario, I’ll just get to stretch my legs a bit.” I studied Jeffers’ face carefully, expecting him to crack a smile and start laughing at me. Instead, he looked relieved.
“Quickly!” he urged. “We have to do something!”
With Jeffers on my heels, I raced out of the galley and headed towards the popsicle room. Due to the heat they generated, the galley, as well as the engine room, was on the other side of the ship from the temperature control room. Still, with only four of us to run it, it was not a large ship, and Jeffers and I got there pretty quickly.
Jeffers had not been joking. One step inside the temperature-control room was enough to convince me of that. The air was downright humid, whereas it was supposed to feel like a walk-in freezer. The giant popsicle wasn’t as giant as it was supposed to be. It was only about three-fourths as tall as it should have been. I went straight into maintenance mode. “Tell me again how this works so I can fix it.”
Jeffers had tried to explain how having a giant popsicle on board kept the ship warm, but I had never understood it before. You add an ice pack to a cooler to cool it down, not to heat it up. Jeffers started talking, but I cut him off. “Quickly! We haven’t got much time!”
“It’s about thermal energy, see?” Jeffers explained. “The more thermal energy we can pull from this room, the warmer we can keep the ship. It’s like a refrigerator, just inside out. You know how if you put your hand on the outside of a refrigerator, it’s warm? That’s the concept that I started from.”
“So we need to keep this entire room well insulated, not just the popsicle.”
“Right,” Jeffers confirmed, looking a little less nervous now someone was taking him seriously.
“How did the popsicle start melting?”
“I don’t know,” Jeffers admitted. “But if it finishes before we get back, we’re goners. The size of that popsicle was calculated very carefully. It’s also part of our system for re-entering the atmosphere.”
“Fine. I’ll see what I can do. But we don’t have much time. We’ll have to cool the whole ship down in the meantime to slow the process down…” I looked at Jeffers. “Can you go see if you can slow the engine down? That generates a lot of heat. Also, tell Oscar to turn off anything in the galley that generates heat. And tell Sally I need her. Wait- take this.” I quickly scribbled a note to the others to convince them it wasn’t a prank. I knew it would work. Jeffers had messy handwriting and couldn’t forge my neat script. I knew because he had tried before, with disastrous results.
Jeffers scurried off to do as he was told, and I shut the door of the temperature control room firmly. If this room worked like a freezer, leaving the door open was a bad idea. I wondered where to begin. Perhaps the problem was with the insulation.
When Sally showed up to help, I met her outside the room. The whole ship was a little cooler, but the temperature room didn’t need our extra body heat. “Jeff and Oscar are doing what they can to cool the engine without sacrificing speed. We can’t get back late,” she reminded me.
I considered reminding her that our lives were more important than our grades, but decided against it. Like I said before, she was an overachiever. We all were.
“I think there’s a problem with the insulation,” I told her instead. “If I can fix it, we should be able to get back before the popsicle melts. What have I got to work with?”
“What do you need?” Sally asked me, yanking on her long blonde ponytail. She did that when she got nervous.
“Some kind of foam would be best, if we have any. Otherwise something reflective. Or with air bubbles in it. I don’t know exactly where the leakage is, so we might have to just reinforce the whole thing.”
Sally hurried off to check the stores, and I started running my hands along the walls outside the room, trying to see if I could find the leak.
Oscar rushed up to me, his arms full of something big and rectangular. He could scarcely see over it. “Pheobe! I’ve brought you some of the ice from the regular freezer. I thought maybe it could help keep things cool in here.”
I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! Oscar, you’re a genius!” If I had been talking to Jeffers, he’d have fluffed his hair up and crowed or something. Oscar, though just as smart, was a lot more modest about it.
“You know how to fix it?”
I still didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but I had a hunch. “I thought it was the insulation, but Jeff said it heats the place like a backwards fridge, and that means the problem can’t be the insulation– it’s got to be the condenser coils! That’s where the cooling/heating happens in a fridge, so—”
“That’s great,” Oscar cut me off. “Can you fix it?
“If I’m right, yes. Still, a little more insulation couldn’t hurt. How much of that ice have you got?”
“There’s plenty more. We’re carrying enough ice that if we got lost in space and had to go on emergency power we could still keep our food cold for a good long time. Sally insisted on it.”
“Bless her. Can you pack it tightly around the popsicle to preserve what’s left of it while I work on the condenser coils? I’m going to need to shut off the power to this room while I work, so we’re going to have to work fast.”
“I’ll get right on it.”
I opened the door to the popsicle’s room and Oscar followed me inside. I almost stopped short, but reminded myself of the need to hurry and kept moving despite the much smaller popsicle. It was already about half gone, and if we didn’t insulate it well with the ice before I cut the power, it was about to get a lot worse.
I went for my tools. Oscar put the ice block down next to the popsicle, then ran for more. He must have caught Sally on her way back from the storerooms and roped her in to help him, because when I got back with my tools she was there too, pushing a large block of ice into place and yanking furiously on her hair as she headed to get more.
I couldn’t wait for the popsicle to be well insulated. The room wasn’t working as well as it should be, and we could all freeze at any moment. I’d just have to be fast. I removed an access panel from the wall, then cut the power to the room and started working on the condenser coils. They were covered in hair of all colours- Sally’s long blonde hairs, Oscar’s short dark ones, my long dark ones, and Jeffers’ shortish red ones. I didn’t want to know how all our shed hairs had gotten there and figured I didn’t have to find out until after we made it back to campus. My guess was it had something to do with a prank Jeffers hadn’t pulled yet.
It only took about five minutes for me to remove the hair, scrub down the condenser coils, and restart the system. Oscar and Sally had worked fast, but they still hadn’t fully finished insulating the popsicle. That was okay, though; I was pretty sure the crisis was averted. I screwed the access panel back into place, then turned to the others. “I think we’ve done it. Let’s go out and close the door so the system can work without interference.”
Oscar, Sally, and I walked slowly back toward the galley, glad that the need to rush was over. I checked my watch. Only about an hour and a half until we were due back at campus. I was just wondering if I should go find Jeffers and see if anything needed to be done preparatory to re-entering the atmosphere when he burst into the hallway in front of us. “There’s something wrong with the engine! I can’t get it to go fast again!”
The three of us started to panic again for a moment, then Oscar held up one hand. “Wait. No. Is this a prank?”
Jeffers looked at Sally, who was in danger of yanking the rest of her hair out, and grinned. “Yep. You saw right through it though, huh?”
Sally breathed a huge sigh of relief and stopped pulling on her hair.
Oscar shook his head. “Really, Jeff? So soon after that last scare… I’d think you’d wait a while first, at least. Give us time to recover.”
Jeffers attempted to look contrite but didn’t quite pull it off. “Sorry.”
Oscar shook his head again as we all entered the galley. In about half-an-hour, it would be time to start getting ready to initiate the landing procedures, but for now, we could sit down for a bit to enjoy the last part of the Creativity’s maiden voyage.
“Pheobe?” Jeffers said in a low voice after a few minutes had passed.
“Yeah?” I asked, a little sleepily. I had a new cup of tea and was curled around it, enjoying the steam.
“Shh. Not so loud. Just…” He lowered his voice even more. “There actually is something wrong with the engine. It’ll probably still last us until after we land, but even so… Can you come and take a look? Quietly? I don’t want to worry the others…”