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by Lance J. Mushung
The rover moved at turtle speed over the lifeless powdery dirt. I’d been directing it up a gentle slope for hours. Although it was hard to believe, the scenery of the Moon’s surface was becoming a bit mundane, a bit mind-numbing. That was especially surprising considering how much the mottled gray Moon had beckoned since I was a kid.
Jan and Samir were sitting next to me and watching the camera monitors to make certain the rover didn’t get into trouble. The radio delay of a few seconds between the rover and Earth wasn’t a big problem since the rover was so slow, but caution was the order of the day. I thought of them as backseat drivers.
“Let’s be careful,” Jan said. “We don’t know what’s on the other side of this rise.”
“Thank you,” I said, masking my exasperation as best I could about once again being told something obvious. She was right about the unknowns beyond the rise though. I was hoping for at least a change of scenery.
“Stop for a few minutes next to that rock over there,” Samir said. He pointed to a stone on the monitor. “It’s unusual and I want to take a closer look.” With his wild gray hair, Samir looked like a mad scientist excited about studying some new and different specimen.
“Do you think there will ever be any more missions to the moon?” Jan asked me while the rover was stopped.
I swiveled my chair to face her and pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose. In the past I’d overheard her describing me as an engineering nerd. Her stern expression, mousy-brown hair in a bun, and high-collared blouse buttoned at the neck always screamed spinster cat lady to me. Learning she had more than ten cats at home would have been no surprise.
“I doubt it. Most people just don’t care about the space program and think the money would be better spent here.” I managed to sound less bitter than I felt about my boyhood dreams of space exploration being crushed.
“They just don’t understand the value of the program.”
“Maybe we should tell them we’re looking for diamonds.”
She rewarded my humor with a brief smile that softened her expression for a moment. “I doubt that would work.”
“Then this rover will be the last new thing on the Moon for awhile.”
“There’s always hope. There may be more missions.”
There was always hope, but I was pretty certain it was forlorn.
When Samir was done, I turned back to my pale green console and controls. The rover made it to the summit of the slope in short order, and Samir panned the steerable camera to survey what was ahead.
“What in the world is that?” Jan said, her pitch rising on each word.
Samir zoomed the camera, and after a few seconds of staring at the monitor we looked at each other. They both had silly, slack-jawed expressions of astonishment on their faces. I’d have bet I did, too. Two objects were in view, and there was no doubt that they were artificial. One was golden brown, had angular lines, and resembled a box on four legs. The other seemed to be a low-to-the-ground cart. A pair of parallel tracks in the gray dirt led away from it.
While the rover headed toward the objects, more and more of our team reported through the intercom that they were watching their monitors. Word of our discovery was spreading. I stopped the rover after a bit more than two hours, when it was near the box.
“What do you think?” Jan asked me.
“Not sure. You’ve got me on this box. All I can say is that it looks like a four-legged spider. The cart has four wheels and clearly made the tracks. It must be a vehicle or dolly.”
“We’ve also got boot prints, small containers, and that pole with what I think is sun-bleached fabric sticking out. The parabolic dish antenna on the cart implies communications. I wonder how long it’s been sitting there? There are some small meteorite holes through the box.” I’d never seen her so animated before. She was talking at machine-gun speed.
Samir spoke for the first time in two hours. “What’s the colored patch on the side of the box?”
Jan said, “A banner?”
Jan was right. It was a faded blue, white, and red rectangular banner. There were 13 horizontal stripes alternating white and red. In the upper left corner, seven of the stripes were shortened by a blue rectangle containing a number of five-pointed stars arranged in a regular pattern.
“Is that writing in black and white underneath?” Jan asked.
“I’d say so,” Samir said, nodding. “See that leg with the ladder? Check out the plate attached to the rungs. There’s more writing on it, along with representations of Earth.”
Jan reached a decision. “It’s some sort of memorial plaque from the Precursors. We’ve been digging up their artifacts from pre-ice times for years, but it never occurred to us that they had any advanced technology.”
“How about ancient aliens?” Samir asked.
Jan looked and sounded dismissive when she answered. “Why would aliens put images of Earth on their plaque?”
That got a debate going over the intercom. Everyone had a thought about what all of us had started calling The Artifacts. I’d never before thought about the Precursors or ancient aliens, and didn’t know if the artifacts were from earlier civilizations, aliens, or something even more fanciful. However, I did know that we had to investigate, and that we’d need to go back to the Moon to do it. There would be an injection of funding.
“What are you grinning about?” Jan said. “Do you have some knowledge I don’t?”
“Not really. But I figure we’re back in the space exploration business again.”
Whoever or whatever had left the artifacts, they had my everlasting gratitude.
Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas, performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.