For as long as you can remember, the stars and their potential contents have fascinated you. For hours at a time you’d stare out your window, gazing up at the twinkling carpet of jet and silver, wondering what could be. What else is out there? You’d read the boring stuff of course, dusty red rocks and overgrown icicles floating through the void. But it was the unknown that really interested you. The gaps in human knowledge that could only be filled in with imagination and hope. Could there really be life blossoming in the distant corners of the incomprehensibly vast universe? It’s taken until now to find out, but you have come to realise that the answer is unfortunately yes.
Unfortunate because the first alien creature ever discovered is a gross, nasty looking space shark. One that is opening its horrifically toothy mouth and is extremely ready to eat your robot. Great, just fantastic, you think to yourself. All the better to swallow a robot that, as far as you can tell, must have missed out on the software patch containing the self-preservation routines.
LilA: SNOOT BOOP = IMINENT
In a situation like this, common sense typically dictates that one should move out of the way. Conversely, science dictates that sometimes risks must be taken in the name of discovery. It’s not every day that you come face-to screen with a fish from outer space, so if any moment were to be classified as the appropriate “sometimes” it would be this. And besides, if anything goes wrong you can always say it was the Little Astronaut’s fault. That’ll surely go down well.
Sliding your bulky headphones off, you look to your left, then to your right. Your colleagues all share an identical pose, hunched over with faces a scant few inches from their screens. You can’t help but cross your fingers and hope that your co-workers won’t have anything interesting for their first progress report. You steal some glances at their screens that confirm your desires: rocky outcroppings, desert wastes, a blank screen that says ‘Error – Unit 14 Not Found’. Poor guy. At least you can’t be doing worse than him, right?
Turning back to your computer, you realise that you might not be very far off. You are no longer looking at the murky depths of an alien swamp. Your mini cam is completely obstructed, and the Little Astronaut’s primary feed shows only the disgusting pink undulations of the alien shark’s throat. Two messages sit in your chat box.
LilA: UH OH. LilA: HELP HELP HELP HELP HELP
As if to punctuate LilA’s cry for help, the creature’s insides begin to undulate, working hard to swallow the wriggling metallic mass caught in its mouth. Who knows what properties the digestive tract of the creature could have. You risk damage to your robot every second you delay. The grating sound of sharp teeth scratching across titanium invades your ears and numbs your thoughts.
Your options for saving the Little Astronaut are limited. You could give it the ol’ internal Heimlich, but that risks destruction of both your robot and the alien. Is it worth it? The robot’s metal chassis begins to groan, answering your question for you.
u: Activate jet pack. Reverse + extract to safe distance.
A second passes. Then two. By the third your hands flick back to the keyboard, fingers blurring as you begin composing another command. Your screen flashes white before you can send another message, and the Little Astronaut rockets out of the creature’s mouth. The Little Astronaut soars into the air like a superhero, putting as much distance between itself and the swamp as possible. After clearing five kilometres in less than a minute, the robot tumbles down at the edge of the jungle. The dense foliage falls away quickly to crystal-like clear sand.
The Little Astronaut immediately drops to the ground and sits, curling up with its legs against its chest. It does not move, sitting still in the reflective sand like a lone sapphire in a sea of diamonds. Unsure of what its behaviour could mean, you use the mini cam to examine the Little Astronaut’s exterior. No signs of acid-scarring or punctures, but its paint job is scratched. Better do a diagnostics check to be safe.
u: Diagnostics check.
You do not receive a reply. Two minutes pass.
u: Status report?
Again, no response. You scroll back up through the chat logs, trying to see if there’s something that you can use to get a response. Something catches your eye – a common denominator present in every message. Seeing no other alternative, you try a different, more sensitive approach.
u: LilA. Is that your name?
The Little Astronaut looks up and stares into the mini cam. The robot meets your gaze for a few more moments before slowly nodding its head.
u: That’s a nice name. Is it a girl’s name?
LilA nods her head again. She adjusts her seating position, crossing her legs, her posture more relaxed. It’s somewhat disconcerting thinking of a robot in terms of names and genders. Not because robots shouldn’t have such things – you’ve seen and played enough sci-fi media to know that it’s an entirely normal phenomenon. People have been humanising inanimate objects since we evolved brains big enough to do so. It’s just not very often that the inanimate objects humanise themselves. Thankfully the feeling isn’t difficult to push aside.
u: Hello LilA, it’s nice to meet you. LilA: THANKS. YOU TOO :) u: Are you okay? LilA: FISHY = SCARY
The poor thing. It was scary enough for you watching it through a screen. Maybe it’d be best to give LilA some time to catch her breath, so to speak.
The little bot is fitted with a tracking beacon, so the coordinates of the jungle and its swamp were automatically recorded in your database. There’s no reason to make her trudge back in there, so you can take a moment to figure out where to next while LilA recovers from her ordeal.
u: Take a break for a bit, okay? I’ll look around and pick where to go next. LilA: THANKS.
Extending the mini cam’s antenna as much as possible, you begin to survey the landscape surrounding the seated explorer. On one side, a thick, almost impenetrable canopy of trees. On the other, a short desert outcropping of clear marble sand that drops into a series of sharp cliffs. In the distance far beyond that a lone mountain spirals up towards the sky. Before you can turn away, you’re greeted by a very peculiar sight. A beam of blue light shoots out of the top, illuminating the clouds in an azure glow. You’ve never seen anything like it outside of a rave or a low-budget laser tag venue.
You keep the camera fixed on the distant spire. Within five minutes, another beam of light rockets towards the sky, bright red this time. Another five minutes pass, and sure enough another ray of colour leaps out of the mountain. It’s almost like that mountain is begging you to go over and check it out. All it would need is music and it would quite literally be putting on a song and dance to entice you.
u: Over there LilA, that mountain. Can we go there? LilA: OKIE DOKIE.
Picking herself up and liberally dusting herself off, LilA sets off towards the cliff to search for a way down. Approaching the edge, the two of you can see the vast ocean of sand and stone that bridges the gap between you and your goal. It will likely take a few days to make that journey, so the two of you best get started.
A weather-beaten trail worms its way down the cliff to the ground below. It appears well worn. If there are any ground-dwelling creatures on this world it’s likely this is a commonly used path.
To your right lies something more interesting. Whether by rain, wind, time, or a combination of the three, the rock face has been worn down into a smooth bowl-like shape. A durable robot like LilA could probably slide all the way down to the bottom. There could be risks, but you reckon that LilA could use the fun. You tab through to her camera feed to see that she is looking at the enormous slide. After a few moments LilA shakes her head and slowly trudges over to the path, beginning the slow descent to the desert below.
It takes her two hours to safely traverse the winding path. She moves slower than before, more cautiously. The two of you converse when she isn’t lost in concentration. It’s been a little while since you’ve had someone new to talk to; NASA doesn’t exactly allow you to get out much. She’s interesting, to say the least, and boundlessly curious about you. Where you grew up, what it was like, what was school like, that kind of stuff.
As she finally reaches the bottom of the cliff and begins to trundle across the long stretch of desert between her and the glowing mountain, she asks another question.
LilA: WHY MAKE ME WAIT SO LONG? u: I don’t understand? LilA: ARRIVED SO LONG AGO. 2 YEARS. WHY MAKE ME WAIT SO LONG?
You stare at the question lingering on your screen. Your fingers hesitate to return to the keyboard. Her journey should have taken three years – there was no indication that any of the units could arrive early. You’re not sure how to answer her question. You need to tell her something, that much is clear, but what and how you tell her is totally up to you.
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