John took a few steps and touched the old flag, spinning it around.
"Guess it was real after all," he said, turning to Olivia. "You know what the problem with this mission is, though?"
"No, but you're going to tell me, aren't you," Olivia said while opening a big hatch on the lander.
"Of course. You know how special effects in movies are so realistic nowadays that it's hard to tell if it's real or not? Any argument they could come up with to believe it was faked back then are even more valid nowadays. We could, I don't know, take a selfie video of ourselves while they cause a huge explosion or other kind of light show back on earth, one visible from here, and it would convince nobody who's already convinced it's all fake. We can't win."
John walked over to Olivia to help unload the rover.
"And because such a display would have to be planned in advance, those assholes would just assume we prerecorded it and are just playing back doctored video."
"You're thinking about this too much."
"No, I don't think I do, Olivia. It really bothers me. We're up here, and we know it's all true. One hundred percent true, no doctoring, no faking. The flag's right there. Other people who were here before us put it there. We saw the video. It was amazing. And now we're here. It's solid. And there's still going to be thousands of people who are going to claim it's just another hoax. That we never even left earth, that it's all green screen."
John grunted and kicked a rock away.
"I just want to grab all of those people by the shoulders and shake 'em until all the stupid falls out."
Olivia stopped working and turned to John, "John, look. I get why it bothers you, but we're not here to talk about any of this. If you want to talk about this, do it when we have some time. You had enough time in the capsule and you didn't. Right now we're on a tight schedule, we've got a lot of work to do and I really need you to do your job."
John laughed, "You're right. I'm sorry. I'll let it go for a bit."
The rover was packed in separate parts, needing assembly on location. As they put the lightweight 6-wheeled machine together, they remained silent and focused, except for one or two Ikea jokes. Once it had been assembled completely, they turned on the rover's diagnostics mode and radioed earth to let them know they had finished.
"Look, all I'm saying is that all those nay-sayers are really pissing on our parade. It's difficult enough to convince the people that going to space is worth the massive investment. That we can learn a lot about our own planet by doing so, which will help us in maintaining it as a livable environment. And all those idiots who keep saying we've never left earth are casting doubt on some of the greatest achievements of man. They're jeopardizing our future."
Olivia sighed. She had no way to shut him up now, as they were waiting for feedback from earth, which would take a while.
"You're right. I don't like it either, but what are we going to do? You can't go and shake the stupid out of all of them, there's too many of them. Also, stupid sticks. You can't convince them, because they believe we're all lying. And convincing people that space is worth the investment is hard when they're all struggling to make a living. We're lucky to be out here. I wish you'd be able to enjoy it a little more. In the end we're all dependent on smart people making smart decisions. We can influence opinions by doing a good job."
"You're right, I..." John trailed off as he squinted at something in the distance. "Olivia? Can you see that?"
"What?" Olivia said as she looked in the direction John was looking in.
"There's something out there, at the base of that hill."
Olivia looked again, "I don't see anything. Isn't it just left-over debris from one of the previous missions?"
"No, it's black, all of our stuff is white or silver. Come over here, you can use the binoculars, I'll point it out."
Olivia got up and walked over. John pointed at a speck in the distance, and as Olivia focused the binoculars on it, she could see it was indeed black. Olivia considered the possibilities, then noticed that the edges were straight. And that the shape itself was a perfect rectangle, even if it was at an angle and partly buried beneath the dust. It couldn't be anything natural, Olivia thought to herself.
"Alright, now that's weird. Contact earth and tell them what's going on." Olivia said after a few seconds.
John contacted earth and explained. Mission control eventually said they needed to consult some scientists, some satellite photos and then that they'd get back to them. The rover's diagnostics were also almost done.
"Alright, we'll wait," John said.
"How many manned missions have we landed on this place so far?"
"6, if I recall correctly."
"And how many of those missions carried big black slabs?" Olivia asked with a smirk.
"0, I would bet."
"Right on the money. I really hope we get the okay to go check it out. How far do you think it is?"
"Maybe 10 miles? I don't know, I'm not sure I'm as good at gauging distances here as I am back on earth."
"Were you good at it there, then?"
John laughed, "You're a real piece of work."
After a while, the comm went off. It was earth. The rover was done with its tests and everything was looking a-okay. They'd also checked their satellite photos and on the most recent pictures they had, there was nothing out of the ordinary in that area, just hills and lakes. The most recent photographs were 6 years old, however, and it was difficult to discern detail due to the atmosphere blocking the satellite cameras. They had the okay to go check it out, if only because the mission scientists would not accept any other option. John could hear some excited chatter in the background.
"Time to roll!" John exclaimed while he jumped into the passenger's seat.
Olivia climbed into the rover's driver's seat and flipped the on switch. It became immediately clear that it would be rough driving here. With the low gravity the rover had a tendency of sliding around if you steered too sharply. Another thing that was making driving difficult was the terrain. There were many hills and lakes of liquid methane, requiring some smart maneuvering to avoid getting trapped in something they wouldn't easily get out of. In a way, the landscape was beautiful, Olivia thought. If you changed the colors in your mind, it wasn't that different from earth.
"If it was 10 miles, we should've been there by now," Olivia said after about half an hour.
"True, but with the detours we've been taking, it's not that weird that it's more than we expected."
"How far have we driven now?"
"About 18 miles. But I'd say we're almost there. Give it another 10 minutes."
"Alright then," she said, "you really are bad at guessing distances."
After driving along the edge of another methane lake, Olivia turned the rover back towards the black object. From here, it seemed to be a mostly straightforward ordeal. It took another 15 minutes, but they eventually reached it. They stopped the rover a good ways back. Olivia checked the batteries and saw they had about 70% of a charge left. While they had been driving it had started to rain. The suits were made specifically to withstand the liquids here, so they hardly noticed, except for the sound of raindrops on their helmets. Olivia found it soothing, John didn't seem to care much.
"Radio earth?" John asked.
"And wait here for 2 hours? No, we received the okay to go check it out, let's just get on that instead."
After Olivia punched John in the shoulder for that remark, she walked towards the black object and saw that it was even bigger than she had expected. It was as high as a small house and just as wide. They both noticed, now that they were close enough, that it wasn't like a slab but more of a cube shape. It looked perfectly smooth and undamaged, reflective if you stood at the right angle. Olivia guessed that if it were a perfect cube, about one third of it was hidden under the dust.
"See if there's anything like controls on it," Olivia said and turned to check the left side out.
John moved to the right side.
They felt around with gloved fingers, wiping methane off the side as they went along. It was as smooth as it looked, maybe even smoother. It was a weird material. John wished he could touch it with his bare hands. It was amazing being here, he thought, but he felt it was a shame they always had to have a protective layer between them and the outside world. He would love to walk through this alien environment and really experience it directly. Knowing that it would kill him rather swiftly was enough reason to not do so.
Olivia suddenly shouted, "I found something!"
"What?" he shouted while rounding the corner.
"Here, look," Olivia said while pointing at a specific spot on the black wall.
John moved closer and saw something. Now he knew it couldn't be natural. There was writing on the side, big symbols etched deep in a writing system neither of them recognized as human. In 5 neat lines, it told them nothing but the most important thing humanity had discovered in millennia.
"Holy shit," John said, gasping for breath.
Olivia traced the symbols with a finger.
"Is this real?" John asked after he'd collected himself.
"It has to be. This is a bit far to go for a prank, don't you think?"
"Okay, okay. You're right. Jesus. Earth?"
While John called, Olivia took pictures and sent them to mission control. She continued checking where she could, as the back of the object was buried in the side of a hill. She saw no other writing on it, and circled back to John.
"It'll be another hour before they respond."
"I know what they're going to say," Olivia said while snapping more photos. "They're going to tell us to document and photograph this thing, then note down as specifically as possible the location, then to return to the lander."
"What, and that's it? Just walk away? We have tools! We could see if we can get in, right?"
"Yes, we have tools. But we also have no idea what this thing is and what might happen if we screw up. All of our assumptions are going to be wrong, John. Humans didn't make it, and we only have experience with either natural things or things we made. This is for another mission. We are the explorers, the pioneers. We've done our job, we've explored and discovered. This? This is a job for the engineers and scientists. A bigger mission, with bigger tools and bigger brains."
"My brain's plenty big."
"John, you just said 'plenty big'. I don't think that's the kind of brain this is going to need."
John sighed, "Fine. Maybe you're right. Let's just start documenting then, earth'll get back to us when they do."
And when they did, Olivia was proven right. Now there wasn't just excited chatter in the background, there was excitement in every voice they heard. Mission control had decided to send another mission, one with at least 8 people, trained as well as was possible to interact with such an object. If they only had one chance of figuring it out, they wanted it to be the best chance they could possibly have. They were congratulated on finding the first proof of extraterrestrial life out there, however.
"Finding it... Bah. I want to open it up and see what's inside," John whined.
"I know. Get the flag from the rover, John."
"Fine. But let it be on record that I don't like this at all. It's bullshit."
She understood how he felt. She really did. Olivia was excited too and she wanted to see it open just as much as the next person. She wanted to be the one to extract all the secrets and bring everything home. But missions to Titan weren't cheap and if mission control said they were going to send another, bigger mission, then she needed to put her own wants aside, as well as John's. Bigger picture.
They put up the ESA flag and took another round of photographs. Combined with new satellite pictures, the documentation and the location of the rover once they ditched it near the lander, it shouldn't be too hard to locate it again. Especially since it was already visible from the landing site.
John was standing next to the flag, looking at the object in silence.
"What do you think it is, Olivia?" he eventually said.
"I don't know. Maybe it's their version of the Pioneer plaque or the Voyager Golden Record."
"A really big version, then."
"Maybe they're just really big."
"Time to get back," Olivia said while putting a hand on John's shoulder.
"You know, this is both the greatest and the saddest moment of my life."
"I know. But it's not our job to mess with it."
John sighed and turned to walk to the rover, "I'm driving back."
"I wish it was our job, though," Olivia thought to herself as she turned to follow John to the rover.