"Stanley?" Dr. Samantha Carter called, a tinge of worry in her voice.
It was unusual for her dog to wander off like this, especially on a hike. But she supposed it wasn't entirely out of character–Stanley was always exploring, and he loved to find new things. Just like his namesake, the man who led the first settler mission to Mars: Theodore Stanley.
His custom-fitted spacesuit, which Samantha found adorable, didn't seem to hinder his movement at all. And even though wearing it wasn’t his favorite thing, he put up with it in order to accompany her on her hikes outside the terraformed community where they lived.
Dr. Carter scanned the horizon, squinting in the bright Martian sun. There was no sign of the naughty pup. She called his name louder, her voice echoing in the empty landscape.
“Stanley! Come, Stanley!”
She certainly didn’t want her furry friend to meet the same fate as Theodore Stanley’s crew and settlers. They had disappeared during their mission, never to be seen again. The unexplored spaces outside Earth could be dangerous…
“Bad dog, Stanley! You need to come back now.”
Finally, a faint barking sounded in the distance. Relief washed over her as she followed the sound, stumbling over the Red Planet’s rocky surface in her haste.
Eventually, she came to a small crater. There, at the bottom, was Stanley. The large, bumbling Golden Retriever was clawing and pulling at something with his paws. It looked like a rock, but it had a slightly different coloring to it than the surrounding boulders.
Dr. Carter scrambled down the crater to his side.
“Stanley, don’t ever do that to me again. What were you thinking?”
The dog growled softly in response, leaping playfully around the object he’d discovered.
"What do you have there, boy?" she asked, gently removing it from under his right front paw.
It was a fossil, embedded in a fairly normal-looking Martian rock, but unlike any fossil she had ever seen before. It was perfectly circular. Impossibly circular, some might say.
Her heart quickened as she realized she may have stumbled upon something incredible - a mystery waiting to be solved. Her reason for being on Mars in the first place.
No, she corrected herself in her mind, Stanley stumbled across something incredible. In fact, Samantha was almost certain it must be human-made. Or alien-made.
She patted the dog on his suited head, and he responded with a tail wag.
“Good job, Stan” she said. “You’ve turned out to be a real scientist, just as your moniker suggests. Let’s go show the team what you found.”
She marked the spot with a red flag, meant to signal a spot for further investigation, and tucked the fossil carefully into her pack before heading back to the terraformed community she shared with Stanley and her fellow researchers.
She was eager to show her discovery to her team. As experts on Martian biology and ecology, she was confident they could unravel the mystery of the strange fossil. And she was confident they’d quickly put her excitement to bed, telling her there was a simple explanation.
“Surely it can’t be what I think it is,” she said to her canine pal as they walked, the sun glaring down on them. “There must be a simpler answer.”
The dog barked in reply.
"This is unlike anything I've ever seen," Liu said, nearly repeating her thoughts verbatim. “It doesn’t appear to be of natural origin. In fact, it looks like a ring. A part of some sort of mechanical apparatus.”
“Then that means…” Samantha said, her breath short. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“I’m not sure.” Liu hesitated. “I don’t really want to go there. At least not until we’re certain.”
He placed the find carefully into an airlocked container, where it couldn’t be harmed by environmental changes.
“Then we’ll examine the site where Stanley found it,” Samantha replied. “We’ll search for other artifacts. It’s possible it came from other people, I suppose. But who?”
Liu shrugged. He removed his gloves. “I have no idea. But the tests are showing that it’s been here since before we made any settlements. Even an outpost wouldn’t have been here then.”
Dust peppered Samantha’s suit, blurring her vision as she combed the ground near Stanley’s find. This time, a team of ten other scientists worked alongside her. They slowly fanned out from the spot she’d marked to look for other artifacts.
She loved this part of her job. She felt like an old-timey detective, searching for clues in the dirt. At least for the first hour or so. After that, it became a bit more routine.
In fact, after three hours with only a few false alarms, Samantha felt more like a tired scientist in search of a needle in a haystack.
The breakthrough came just as she was about to suggest a break for lunch.
“Ah! Over here.” Liu’s voice came through her headset.
He held up a hand to signal that he’d found something.
Her heart fluttered, and her palms began to sweat.
“No!” Liu said. She could see his face through his suit’s clear headpiece. His skin was ashen.
“What is it?” she said.
Another team member reached Liu before she did.
“It can’t be!” The team member said, his face just as astounded as Liu’s.
“What is it?!?!” Samantha demanded again.
Liu held it out to her as she approached.
A finger bone.
She took it carefully, marveling at its condition.
“There’s more,” Liu said. He moved red dust aside with his boot, scraping at it until something white and also bone-like began to appear. But this was large. Very large. It wasn’t bone at all but metal.
“Not a spaceship?” she said, awestruck. “Whose is it?”
“I have a hunch,” Liu responded.
With the help of Samantha and the rest of the search team, he gently and very slowly removed the Martian ground, revealing the spaceship inch by inch.
“It wasn’t very deep,” he commented under his breath. “Probably mostly covered by the wind.”
“There!” Samantha said when a number came into sight. “We can use that to identify the ship.”
She pulled a communications device out of a side pocket, which she kept filled with various tools, and scanned the number quickly.
After seeing the result, the young scientist nearly fainted.
“The Nomadus.” She barely breathed the two words.
“The first settler ship? The one that disappeared?” Liu said. “The one captained by-”
“Theodore Stanley,” Samantha finished.
“Isn’t your dog named after Stanley?” Liu asked.
Samantha nodded slowly. “It’s surreal.”
Liu laughed suddenly and loudly, bending forward to touch the ship with his protective gloves.
“It is unbelievable. No one knew what happened to The Nomadus. They thought it’d gone off course entirely. The ring Stanley found must have been a part of the ship.”
“They made it after all.” Samatha smiled slightly. “They were the first people on Mars. Not us. They may not have lived to tell the tale. But…”
“They can now be laid to rest, these star wanderers.” Liu shook his head. “And it’s all thanks to Stanley. A dog just made our most significant discovery since arriving on Mars.”
“Well, he’s no ordinary dog,” Samantha replied. “He’s a star wanderer, too. Just as foreign to this place as the rest of us.”
“And just as vulnerable,” Liu said, staring at the finger bone in Samantha’s hand. “What a strange coincidence.”
A surge of emotion caused tears to well up in Samantha’s eyes. A connection had been forged between the modern-day pioneering Mars inhabitants and this doomed crew from so long ago. A connection that couldn’t be broken. For they were the star wanderers—all of them.
Strangers in a fantastic and foreboding place. Outsiders who had shared a dream and a journey, only at different times. And in the great expanse of the universe, they had found one another.
“Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all,” Samantha said. “Maybe our journeys were always supposed to converge here, at this moment. Because we had the same destination. The same goal.”
She stared down at the hull of the ship, still partially covered by dust.
“To inhabit the Red Planet.”
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