“Okay. It should be just over this hill.”
Jansen sighed as he watched Ames bound off ahead of him. The other astronaut might only be a few years younger, but it showed. The younger man took huge, bounding steps, not worrying about damaging his suit.
Following behind, Jansen insisted on more caution, even though it slowed his pace. All these young bucks were so eager to explore, to push boundaries, that they never listened to the safety briefings. Jansen knew very well what even a small rip on the suit could do, this far out from the lander.
“There it is! I found it – wait…”
Jansen frowned. His younger partner’s voice had just shifted, dropping from eager to confused.
Had something happened to the rover? Even as he tried to control himself, the older astronaut felt his heartbeat quicken. They were planning on using that rover for several critical surveys; any damage to it could set back their mission considerably.
Stay calm. He forced himself to slow his breathing, to focus on the plodding, bouncy steps. Crossing the moon was like walking on the surface of a giant marshmallow – each step felt soft, and there was the ever-present fear of his feet slipping out from beneath him. Conserve oxygen, he repeated in a mantra.
Finally, he reached the top of the hill. Ames was down below, looking at the rover.
It didn’t appear damaged, Jansen thought as he approached. It was parked between a couple large boulders, and all the external struts looked intact. Even the little front shield, designed to protect against any kicked-up scree, was-
There was something on the front shield, Jansen realized. Even though there was no breeze on the airless moon, it seemed to be fluttering back and forth. Ames was staring at it.
“What is it?” Jansen asked as he drew up closer.
You can’t shrug in a space suit. The shoulders are too stiff and don’t move that way. But from the way Ames raised his hands, Jansen knew exactly what the younger astronaut was attempting to convey.
“You take a look,” he said, his voice sounding uneasy. “You’re the lead, after all.”
Jansen fought back a sigh. Passing the buck. Weren’t these “best and brightest” supposed to be beyond doing that?
Still, he reached out and tugged the thin, gently waving object free of where it was stuck against the rover’s front shield. The object seemed to be a thin sheet of plastic, with some sort of markings on one side.
He held it up closer to his helmet, trying to read it. Fortunately, once he picked up the sheet from the rover, it stopped fluttering and went rigid, like other objects in this airless environment.
The sheet had some sort of writing on it, but he couldn’t read any of the characters… Jansen squinted, as suddenly the letters seemed to swim, rearranging themselves and contorting until they formed block English.
“What? I don’t understand.” The comment slipped out of his mouth without thinking as he stared at the sheet of thin plastic and the words on it.
DEAR INFERIOR SPECIES STOP.
YOUR UNINTELLIGENT APPARATUS IS PARKED WITHOUT PROPER INTERPLANETARY DOCUMENTATION STOP. EXTRAPOLATION OF BIOLOGICAL CYCLES FROM THE NEAREST PLANET REVEALS THAT IT HAS BEEN UNMOVED FOR MORE THAN TWO STANDARD GENERATIONAL DEVIATIONS STOP. THIS IS IN VIOLATION OF STARSECTOR ZZ9 PLURAL Z ALPHA TREATISES AGAINST GALACTOCOSMIC LITTER STOP.
FURTHERMORE THERE IS NO RECORD AT THE INTERBUREAU’S NEAREST OFFICE OF OFFICIAL SANCTIONS FOR OFF-PLANET DEPARTURE STOP. SUBMIT APPROPRIATE FILINGS AND BIOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALS FOR MOLECULAR PATHOGEN EXAMINATIONS BEFORE DEPARTING FROM YOUR SECTOR STOP.
FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH REGULATIONS WILL RESULT IN INTERDIMENSIONAL FOLDING AND QUARANTINE STOP.
HUGS AND KISSES,
SECTOR OFFICIAL VOGONIS 39174
Ames was still looking at him. Jansen knew from the man’s silence that he was worried.
Maybe the younger man was still trying to think in the framework of their mission. Jansen could feel his mind attempting to do the same, to put this new discovery into some form that he could swallow, could handle. He wasn’t having a good time of it.
This was huge. This would redefine their mission- no, he corrected himself. This would redefine all life on Earth.
And then, a totally irrational thought crept into his head, and he couldn’t hold back a chuckle.
“What?” Ames asked, sounding scandalized that his partner was laughing. Had Jansen snapped?
Jansen pointed at the sheet of plastic. “It’s a parking ticket!” he cried, feeling tears slipping out of the corners of his eyes inside his suit. “NASA’s next great mission, for the glory of humanity – we have to go pay our parking fines!!”
It took a moment. But soon, Ames was laughing as well.
Two astronauts, beings from another planet, the furthest from home that any human being had ever traveled, rolled in the lunar dust as they clutched themselves and howled with laughter.