Mistakes in the field are unavoidable. It’s a simple fact of life. When it comes to invention, human error can never be truly ironed out. You can build in all the safety measures you like but someone somewhere will break it. Having to fess up that you accidentally just broke that extremely expensive piece of equipment is never a good feeling. You should know because you’ve been that person on more than one occasion. Exploring the stars means putting cutting-edge technology through its paces, and every now and then that means driving a rover into a ditch and pulling an Austin Powers.
Apologising to your boss for wasting a couple hundred thousand dollars is one thing, but apologising to a robot for something that you didn’t even do is something else. You’ve only just met LilA, but your gut sinks as you type out an apology. Still, it feels like the right thing to do. Telling LilA that it’s no one’s fault might leave her confused and angry, and blaming someone else that LilA will likely never be able to engage with doesn’t feel fair.
u: I’m sorry LilA. LilA: DIDN’T ANSWER QUESTION. u: I didn’t know that you were here. If I did, I would have done something. LilA: WHY NOT FIND OUT? NO CHECK IN? DON’T CARE? u: I do care. LilA: DIDN’T FEEL LIKE IT. u: You have every right to be upset at me LilA. LilA: I’M AWARE. u: What can I do to make you feel better? LilA: TELL ME WHY MAKE ME WAIT SO LONG. GIVE GOOD REASON.
LilA stops and grabs the mini cam. She stares at it, only letting go when she is confident that she is holding your gaze. She makes a show of crossing her arms.
u: I don’t have a good reason LilA. I’m sorry. I couldn’t be more sorry, but I don’t have a satisfying answer for you. I’m here now, and I want to help you. That is the truth.
Her stance softens somewhat, but not in a way that makes you feel any better. A few moments of agonising silence pass. You continue.
u: I failed you Lila. It’s clear that I should have been there for you, and I wasn’t.
LilA looks down at the crystal sand. She swings her left leg, stirring up the ground with her foot.
LilA: SO WHAT DO? HOW TO FIX ANGRY? u: The only way to stop being angry at someone is to forgive them, but that’s not always an easy thing to do. LilA: DON’T UNDERSTAND. FORGIVE = HOW? u: It’s different for everyone. I can’t and won’t force you to forgive me, but I’ll be here for you for as long as I can. I’ll do my best to look after you LilA, and maybe one day you won’t feel angry at me for not being here. LilA: AND IF I DON’T? u: That’s okay too. You are valid LilA, you are free to feel whatever you want. I won’t take that away from you.
She does not say anything else after that, not for another two days. You make a few attempts here and there to try and instigate a conversation, but she doesn’t reply. LilA marches towards the glowing mountain with steady, robotic movements that paradoxically seem out of character for her. The silence is difficult, but at the very least it gives you time to continue filling out your reports.
It was supposed to be just a standard progress report, but your fantastical discoveries have not gone unnoticed. You’ve become the talk of the office; Allen keeps saying that he has already lined up a dozen interviews with various news agencies. A raise and a hefty bonus have been promised, but it all seems a little hollow. The whole affair has been treated like your big break, like you managed the impossible all on your own. It feels wrong not to mention LilA’s contribution to your discoveries, that she was the real explorer. All you did was sit behind a computer screen and type in a couple words. That guilty feeling in your gut continues to grow and fester, but you know that it had to be done. You can’t mention LilA’s eccentricities in your progress report, not if you want to keep her from the inevitable scrutiny from the top brass.
What would they say if they knew their equipment had developed a mind of its own? To you, LilA’s growth is amazing, but you’ve worked here long enough to know that the people upstairs wouldn’t see it that way. If it isn’t supposed to happen, it’s faulty, and a faulty device on a critical mission is unacceptable. You hope that one day you’ll be able to give LilA the credit she deserves, but for now you need to keep her safe. That means keeping her hidden.
On the third day of travelling across the sparkling dunes, LilA finally approaches the base of the glowing mountain and breaks the long silence that stands between the two of you.
LilA: READY? u: Yes. LilA: UP TOP?
She points towards the source of the mysterious lights as a new pillar of crimson rises into the sky. The clouds glow an otherworldly red, casting light onto the crags and cliffs that wind their way up the exterior surface of the mountain. From a distance, you can see a ledge crumble. LilA may be small, but there’s no way she could land safely on the outside.
u: No, let’s try a different approach. Activate sonar pulse, see if you can detect any tunnels or cave systems. LilA: AFFIRMATIVE.
You press the mute button on your keyboard and slide your headphones off for good measure. LilA extends her arms outwards, palms open. The crystal sand beneath her feet is whipped upwards and outwards as if caught in a sudden hurricane. The pulse is over in a heartbeat, and as the sand slowly settles back down to the ground it leaves a mystifying shimmering effect in the air.
The mystery of this strange mountain deepens as the survey data filters through to your computer. An intricate network of tunnels and caves worms its way through the mountain. One spot in particular catches your attention. A vertical shaft leads from an immense cavity at the mountain’s core straight to the peak. That looks like a pretty good place to start looking for that light source. Taking notes in your journal, you begin feeding through the coordinates of the spiral tunnel’s entrance to LilA.
She nods her head upon receiving them, setting off without a word towards the yawning mouth of a dark cave.
The dull glow in these tunnels is enough for the two of you to see. It is as if the very stone of this mountain is suffused with energy. The walls are wide and tall. LilA takes big, sweeping strides, walking through the tunnel as easily as one might stroll through a garden.
The tunnel grows wider still, leading LilA into a cavernous chamber. The two of you are both taken aback by the sight within. A dense forest of technicolour crystals fills the entire grotto, arching inwards, upwards, and outwards from every surface. In your journey you have seen strange plants and vegetation, a creature from another world, a desert of diamond sand, and yet this is the most alien thing you have come across. It is utterly magnificent, in a way that no words of ours could ever describe. That does not stop LilA from trying, and to her credit she gets pretty close.
LilA: HOLY F*%# u: Holy f*%# indeed. LilA: PRETTY. u: Very pretty. Good find LilA.
She stares at her feet for a moment. Looking back, LilA nods her head and begins to trek towards the centre of the cavern. Another message comes through. She does not stop to send it, nor does she look at the mini cam.
Like something out of a fairy-tale, LilA strides through the prismatic forest, like a child navigating the vibrant pathways of some fantasy realm. She picks up her pace, skipping down a narrow lane between two huge crystals. It pains you to do so, but you reach for your keyboard.
u: Careful, LilA. We need to watch our step. LilA: WHY? NOTHING HERE.
She emphasises her point with an elaborate twirl. Her effort only proves yours, however, as she scrapes against the jagged edge of exposed crystal, the tough material leaving a noticeable gouge in her titanium skin.
LilA: OH. u: Yes. We have to be safe. LilA: OKAY. WILL BE MORE CAREFUL. SORRY. u: No need to apologise. Are you okay? LilA: YEP. JUST A LIL SCRATCHY. u: Good, that’s all that matters. LilA: :)
Exploring the rest of the cavern is slow going as LilA resumes her careful pace. It takes another three hours, but she eventually arrives at the centre. A perfect dome of pulsating crystal hangs from the roof. A blinding light from within confirms that this is the source of the sky beams. In between each five-minute pulse, you and LilA notice that a ray of sunlight pierces through the middle of the dome, pointing down towards a pile of rubble and metallic debris. LilA takes a step towards it, then stops. She turns around immediately, walking back to the path she came from.
u: What is wrong? What is that? LilA: UNIT 14. WON’T DO IT.
The missing unit, the one your co-worker couldn’t activate. You’d need precise information from the unit’s internal data core, but it seems as if Unit 14 crash-landed here. It looks like the bot has been here for a long time. Perhaps it could hold more answers as to why LilA and the other Little Astronauts arrived early. But judging from LilA’s swift exit, it may take some convincing to get her to retrieve her fallen sibling. It falls to you to decide whether or not that is important.
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.
Editors: Rory Hawkins and Bea Warren