Space exploration is tricky business. In fact, Forbes recently placed space exploration at the number two spot on its most recent list of trickiest businesses. It’s right behind deep sea exploration, but, you know, that’s just because of the sharks and other weird gribblies that knock about down there. The moment someone discovers space sharks that list will change, and modern space explorers will finally receive the respect and adoration they deserve –hat you deserve. Because it just so happens that you are one of those explorers.
You’ve been working at NASA for the last ten years, and you’ve been doing a darn-tootin good job, if you do say so yourself. Not that anyone has really noticed the work you’ve been doing. The impact of your work does feel rather lessened when you are one of one-hundred-and-fifty people working identical jobs.
Ah well, at least your job is pretty damn cool.
Operating drones definitely has its perks, and the position has become quite rewarding over time. As the field of robotics progresses, the field of drone operation becomes more and more interesting. They only had you working boring little rovers and dull little helicopter drones when you started.
Today you get to start working with a real, bonafide robot. A new line of machines designed to be the perfect astronaut, to boldly go where no one with a conscious value of personal health and safety would ever go. The Little Astronaut Mk 1.
You must have read the briefing packet a thousand times by now. You’ve always been thorough, and it pays to be prepared when operating a machine worth your entire yearly salary. Of the one-hundred-and-fifty drone operators at NASA, only twenty were chosen for the Little Astronaut’s maiden voyage. They picked you for a reason, and you are determined to remind them what that reason was. It certainly couldn’t hurt to do so; you were selected for the mission three years ago, when the robots were launched into space towards a distant target.
Probes have confirmed that the Little Astronauts have landed on a planet that is believed to be habitable. They are all on standby, waiting for instructions. It now falls to you—and nineteen other schmucks, but mostly you—to take command of these intrepid explorers and evaluate whether or not this planet could support human life.
The course of human history could very well be altered by how well you perform. And everyone knows that a world-altering event can mean only one thing: a surefire, almost definite (probably) raise. Hopefully. Your supervisor Allen said he’d think about it, which is a start.
The screen flicks on with a pleasant hum. White text begins to roll down a pitch-black screen. All systems online, all systems nominal. Perfect. The Little Astronaut is ready to boot up. You don’t even need to refer to your well-worn briefing packet – all commands and codes have been drilled into your memory. It’s time to get this ball rolling.
u: Antenna camera on.
The text is whisked away and replaced by a crisp image of an alien landscape. You can see no further than five metres thanks to a thick canopy of alien foliage. Foliage! Already this mission has proven to be an immense success in the name of science.
You begin to take copious screenshots, using the controls to swivel your mini-cam around to build a comprehensive three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic picture. Your screen is awash in vibrant greens of the underbrush and the vivid purples of alien flowers. The unfamiliar shapes and sizes of the plant-life on display is mesmerising. You could spend hours here. Unfortunately, you only get a few minutes before a metallic, tapping sound breaks your concentration.
You aim the camera down to see a silver antenna attached to your mini-cam, and a small, blue, robotic astronaut attached to that. Sitting cross-legged on the jungle floor, it holds its comically large head with one hand and taps its fingers against its leg with the other. It looks as if the Little Astronaut has been watching you for some time, and if you didn’t know any better you’d think it looks bored. The text input box appears down in the bottom left of your screen, larger than before and split in two. Before long, a message appears in the new half.
LilA: ALREADY TOOK PICTURES. WE GO NOW?
Well that’s new. The briefing packet didn’t mention anything about the Little Astronaut units talking back. Wait.
Sweat beads down your brow as you begin to rifle through your bag to find it. You didn’t break it already did you? Oh god please no. The bag clutters to the floor out as it slips out of your sweaty palms. Focus damnit! You can’t afford to slip up now. Your machine is broken already, you need to act fast and-
LilA: TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP
You are snapped out of your panicked state by repeated loud thudding against the camera’s microphone. The camera is now pointed directly at the robot’s golden visor, along with its finger which repeatedly taps the camera. For whatever reason, it also sent the word ‘tap’ several times as a message. Another quickly follows.
LilA: STOP TAKE SO LONG. WE GO NOW? u: Yes.
The Little Astronaut leaps into the air the moment you hit enter. The bot takes off immediately, striding into the great unknown. You had imagined your role in controlling it would be a bit more involved, but it seems more than capable of guiding itself. As the foliage begins to grow denser you prepare to initiate obstacle clearing routines, only for a machete to spring forwards from its arm before your fingers can even hit the keys.
It emits a loud, high-pitched sound as it swings with reckless abandon, hacking away thick vegetation without a hint of effort. It takes you a few moments, but eventually you realise that it sounds like laughter. The Little Astronaut proceeds to giggle rampantly for another twenty-three minutes.
It was kind of endearing at first, though you still don’t understand how it was possible. You managed to finally fish out your crumpled briefing packet to confirm if you missed something. However, true to your memory, there was no mention of any sort of laughter response. The Little Astronaut isn’t supposed to send messages too. That is a mystery you’ll have to solve soon, or at the very least figure out a way to guarantee that it wasn’t your fault.
By the twenty-fourth minute of constant giggling you finally reach your breaking point. It may not be listed in the manual, but perhaps a simple command will fix the issue?
u: Stop giggling.
The laughter stops for a brief moment as the Little Astronaut slows its pace.
Well, that was easy. You probably should have tried that much earlier. The Little Astronaut faces the camera and, looking directly at you, raises its right hand. It then begins performing a most peculiar action, pretending to turn a small crank. You cannot guess why at first, but it becomes readily apparent when you notice what finger it is steadily raising.
LilA: DOES NOT COMPUTE.
The laughter returns, louder this time. Despite lacking any sort of respiratory system or muscles, the Little Astronaut doubles over, clutching at its midsection as if it were wheezing with laughter. You really ought to do something about this behaviour. Granted, you’ve only been working with the robot for less than an hour, but no other machine you’ve operated has ever flipped you the bird before.
u: Laugh it up. LilA: OKAY.
The laughter comes harder as the Little Astronaut escalates its dramatic performance. The robot drops to its knees, splashing about in the mud. You would be angrier, but something about that catches your attention. Splashing can only mean one thing.
Water! Today just keeps getting better.
As the Little Astronaut continues to mock you, you swivel the camera around, gasping out loud as you realise the magnitude of your discovery. You’ve managed to, accidentally, discover the first body of water on an alien planet. A sizable one too. The Little Astronaut is proverbially pissing itself with laughter on the banks of an immense swamp.
u: Take water sample.
The robot stops, swivelling its head around to the body of water. It crawls closer, hands perched on the mudbank before the water.
LilA: AFFIRMATIVE. TAKING SAMPLE.
Without a single moment of hesitation, the Little Astronaut unceremoniously dunks its entire head into the swamp.
LilA: WATER = STINKY.
Okay? The robot isn’t equipped with any olfactory sensors, so you’re not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean. Your thoughts are interrupted by bubbles rippling to the surface, an act you fear will once again set off the robot’s laughter. But you are pleasantly surprised when nothing happens. The robot remains motionless, staying like that for far longer than necessary. Wait, this model is waterproof, right?
u: Diagnostics check. LilA: ALL GOOD THANKS. u: Status report?
The Little Astronaut pushes its right arm into the murky water, sending droplets cascading over the antenna camera.
u: Switch camera feed.
Your view of the sunny, swampy expanse is replaced by the murky gloom of the swamp itself. The water is far deeper than you imagined – so deep that you cannot see anything at all. At least not at first. You strain your eyes, trying to make out any details of what the Little Astronaut might be looking at. Two whole minutes pass before you see it. There, looking straight back at you, is the grimacing, fang-filled face of a very large fish. You almost faint at your chair. Not only can this planet support complex plant life and water, but it is populated by living creatures. And you found one.
This is immense. Extraordinary even. There’s no way that Allen could deny you a raise now. Actually, screw Allen. This is a tremendous leap for science! For philosophy! Life is confirmed to exist on distant worlds. Who knows what else the stars could hold?
You could imagine the implications of your discovery for hours, but you are snapped out of your revelry by two very unfortunate and very pressing realisations. The first is that this alien creature is slowly moving towards the Little Astronaut. The second, and perhaps the most troubling, is that the Little Astronaut’s hand is moving towards the creature.
LilA: BOOP THE SNOOT.
In a matter of moments the Little Astronaut will be making physical contact with an unidentified and rather dangerous looking alien. That is, unless you have anything to say about it.
Author: Jamie Stevens (he/him) is a third year creative writing student from Brisbane. With an unhealthy love of everything abject and absurd, Jamie crams his sense of humour into everything he makes. For more news on his other publications and projects, check out his Instagram @jamie.c.stevens.
Artist: Harrison Coates is an emerging writer studying at QUT. His work investigates the varied and complex lives of those around him, and their place in an increasingly strange world. Living in Brisbane as a 3rd year fine arts student, he finds inspiration for the absurd situations explored by his fiction easily.
Accessibility Reader: Jody Christie
Editors: Isa Velasquez and Bea Warren