You are the first human to step foot on Mars, and after days of exploring the Red Planet your team finds a torn flag in the sand…of the Roman Empire.
On the way out, George had been a bit of a pranker. We rolled with the pranks. Eventually, Mission Control rolled with them as well.
So we took photos, bagged the vexillum, tagged it as George’s personal effects, put it in the sample locker, and moved on.
We forgot it was even there.
Years after we got home, we were all called back to Huntsville.
There was Mhari, our doctor. John, our pilot. Sam, O captain our captain. Heinrich, our geologist. Mai, who did the spacewalk that saved our heatshield. Me, the Canadienne mission specialist.
And at the center of our side of table was George.
On the other side of the table was the administrator of ESA. And the administrator of NASA. JAXA. CSA. CNSA. Roscosmos. And a handful of secretaries, and a higher-than-average number of cameras, aimed not at the table of brand-name famous people but at our — the Mars Seven’s — faces. Watching us.
The glasses of ice water were laid out with care, the notebooks and the pens.
Behind the cameras, a pair of projection screens flickered to light, displaying a tattered red velvet pennant, emblazoned with a golden SPQR. Tassels hung off its bottom end.
Half of us put our heads in our hands.
George slumped back into the chair.
The administrators squared their shoulders.
Later, over coffee, in a bar that knew who we were and was discreet, we get the whole story from George. More of the story than was in the briefing we’d gotten.
We thought it was a prank of George’s. We bagged it like a real sample because that was part of the joke. We forgot about it in the sample locker. An intern processed it like it was real, because that was part of the joke, the joke having spread to the rest of NASA at that point. They ran it through all the “what if the Romans were on Mars” tests because that was part of the goddamn joke and the tests came back and then they thought George had stolen the banner from a museum, because George had that reputation, but no museum was missing one, and there was no way that George had gone digging to find an excellently-preserved standard of the Roman army in George’s backyard in England. They even asked George if that was the case, and the thing that you must know about George is that George always, always, always fesses up to the pranks.
But George didn’t.
And so they ran more tests, and more tests, and I should not be telling you this i’ a bar in the Minneapolis municipal airport, but we found a authentic Roman legion banner on Mars and it had been there for a thousand years, plus or minus fifty-three.