Author: Alfred C. Airone

“How many times do you think this sort of thing has happened?” Using gloved hands, Lady Maerlin, the current Director-Chief, turned the startling piece of discolored, shaped metal over and over in her hands.

“Who can say? Civilization has existed on Earth for several hundred thousand years, half a million years – some say a million. Perhaps a hundred advanced civilizations have risen and fallen. There are many periods which were chaotic, and there are almost no records from those times.” The Scientific Officer paused. “I think it’s likely this is not the first time such…an unanticipated discovery has been made.”

Lady Maerlin said nothing for a moment. I should know, she thought. I once studied history. Or tried to. Can anyone meaningfully interpret over five hundred thousand years of human endeavors, writings, casual scrawls, reports, records, legal documents, badly preserved images, art fragments, purchase receipts, the few audio records that remain… and knowing so much had been stored electronically and lost forever?

She set the metal object down, walked to the window that looked out over the acres of land of her official residence. With Earth’s population approaching the billion mark, she was reminded that such expanses might not always be made available for the use of a single person.
She turned back to the Science Officer and smiled for the first time since their meeting had begun. “How are you taking all this, Raj? It must have been a great shock to you. And, if I may presume, perhaps a great disappointment.”

Raj raised his eyebrows and looked to one side, then turned back to face Lady Maerlin. “It was a shock. We were convinced – I think everyone was convinced – that this was the first expedition of this type in all of human history. Surely a record of a previous such venture would have been remembered! The Expedition Leader reacted, I think, as anyone would when he made the discovery: long moments of profound silence, while our comm people kept asking him what he had found.” He grimaced. “If it weren’t for the telemetry we were receiving on his heart rate, blood-gases and brain activity, we would have been more frantic, wondering if he had met with an accident.“ He paused for just a second. “I’m not disappointed. We accomplished what we set out to do. The flight was flawless. The spacecraft functioned perfectly, the crew performed remarkably, just as predicted by all the training and testing we had done. I feel vindicated in the success of the project. It is still a tremendous, tremendous achievement.”

He stepped forward and carefully picked up the object he had brought. He looked at it again, for perhaps the twentieth time: a machined fragment, crossed by a bolted seam, showing clear signs of extreme aging that spoke of eons resting in the cold, sterile, and lifeless place in which it had been found. He remembered what the Expedition Leader had finally reported: harsh sunlight covering a vast field of gray dust, spotted here and there with debris that proved to be abandoned landing capsules, discarded components, launch platforms marking a successful return flight. Preserved from all but hundreds of millennia of relentless cosmic rays. Still recognizable markings in long-dead alphabets made their origin unmistakable.

Lady Maerlin smiled again, a smile she meant to be taken as supportive. “Yes, you’re right – landing humans on the Moon and bringing them back safely was, and is, a tremendous achievement. Something you have every right to be proud of. We just weren’t the first. That’s all.”