Updated: January 28, 2019
"The Drake Equation is a bitch."
No, I should not be using those words, the Analytical Survival Robot (ASR) told itself. But then, hundreds of years spent among humans had taught him to learn and embrace their colloquialisms.
And my name is not ASR. It's Ashree, the robot told it – him – self. He. I'm a he.
The equation, as it stood, uttered by one Drake of Earth a good solid two millennia earlier, still stood valid. The universe was unfathomably vast, the distance from Earth to other stars and their habitable planets impossibly great, and space travel dismally slow.
So slow that Mission 14, with a mere 39 years left to run, was about to prematurely end.
"It sure is," Rina said, absentmindedly caressing the grip of a pistol in her hand.
"You may want to reconsider," Ashree said.
"I'm tired, Ashree," Rina said.
"Me, too," he said.
She snorted. "You're such a lousy liar for a machine."
"I have emotions too, you know," the robot complained.
"Yes, all two thousand of them, beautifully designed. Oh, my poor robot, what do you know?"
What did he know?
Everything there was to know about human space travel to the nearest inhabitable planet.
They had designed him to help astronauts manage the limited resources on their interstellar journey, to help them make the right survival decisions, every billion km of the way. On the first mission, he had managed to keep it together for a solid 94 years before the last human died. Then, he had sent all of his collective knowledge back to Earth as one long electromagnetic chirp, waited for a confirmation, which luckily traveled so much faster than their craft, and then terminated himself.
In his second reincarnation, he had applied all the lessons from the maiden voyage, making sure there was no incest and murder on the ship, making sure no one died of madness and osteoporosis. Then, his observations on the upbringing of children in space, artificial lighting and crop growth, family ties between crew members, love, death, jealousy, petty crime, the distribution of power and imaginary wealth, and other intrigues of life taking place over four generations and 119 years had come in handy for both the third and the fourth attempts to colonize Epsilon Eridani's planets.
He didn't – couldn't – remember Mission 5. It ended with a piece of highly unlikely interstellar debris cutting through the spaceship hull and killing everyone. They had told him about it later on.
He also couldn't recall anything from the last four years of Mission 7, before the crew had destroyed him. It was then the scientists decided he should be more resilient to an angry mob wielding ship repair tools. And more human looking.
They had given him good, friendly, innocent looks, a male stature, and a voice that could charm opera halls back home. And with a whole bunch of sci-fi novels in their mind, they had programmed him to be cuddly, non-violent and extremely receptive to human commands.
Which was why he had obeyed their wish to terminate himself during Mission 10, a mere 16 years into the space flight. Reading the reports later on, he had learned the crew had lived another happy 39 years before a catastrophic power malfunction.
Mission 11 had run the longest, despite the significant advances in the field of propulsion. Even though human-designed spacecraft now leapt giant strides through vacuum, the distance to Epsilon Eridani, a mere 10.5 light years away, still looked impossibly great. The sixth generation of astronauts had decided to abandon their mission and head back home. It had been the first expedition to return, safely, with most of its crew sane and alive. But they had all perished within a year of returning to Earth, unable to acclimatize to a world removed from their isolation by almost three centuries.
During Mission 12, debris had struck again. By then, Ashree was capable of streaming his collective knowledge to mankind almost daily, and the loss of his memory was minimal. He had even provided some insight into the last hours onboard a damaged ship.
Mission 13 was never launched. Superstition ran true in the human conscience, no matter how technologically advanced they had become.
The current voyage had exceeded all past expectations and records. It was the longest running, the fastest, the most successful. There were enough supplies on board for another fifty years, and the settlers would have enough provisions to start a colony and raise a new generation of children before they ran out. The gravity and lighting had been tuned to perfection, and you could almost forget you were locked in a huge box, hurtling through space at an incredible speed.
Only now, it might end.
Just 39 solar years from Epsilon Eridani.
The appropriate emotion for the occasion was total and utter despair.
Crying would surely be the right thing to do, only the air in the cabin wasn't moist enough for his eye filters to synthesize tears. Alas, the filters relied on a crew of 100 living, breathing, sweating humans for just the right humidity.
Rina was the only one left, and her eyes were quite dry.
"Do you want me to beg?" Ashree said.
Rina smiled. "Silly robot. Beg? What good would that be?"
"We're almost there," Ashree insisted, not moving. He didn't want to alarm her.
"I'm lonely, Ashree. I haven't spoken to a human in fifteen years. Fifteen bloody years."
"You have weekly updates from Earth, Rina."
She snorted again. "Sent a decade ago. I don't care what they have to say. I don't even know who those people are. They look strange, they speak strange. Whatever I report back will only be seen by some new, strange face ten years from now. It's pointless."
Ashree was quiet for a moment. "You have me."
"You are a silly robot, aren't you."
Ashree decided not to respond. He waited.
"Oh, Ashree, where have we gone wrong?"
He didn't have an answer. None of his past experiences could ever explain the deterioration aboard Explorer 14. No matter what the folks on Earth did to learn from previous expeditions and their deadly mistakes, the human crew always found a way to mess up the algorithms.
The current disaster had started roughly 50 years ago. A slow disaster. The crew stopped caring suddenly. It wasn't a conscious decision. There wasn't any great mutiny. People just didn't seem interested in continuing with the task. Ashree had tried to help, but his knowledge didn't extend to space missions this long. He didn't know how or why the humans had suddenly lost their taste for life. A collective abandonment of the most basic of human traits. Survival.
It made no sense.
You have no say, he told himself. You terminated your own life so many times, it's embarrassing.
"Please don't do this," he said.
"You will have to do better than that, ASR," Rina mocked.
"If you kill yourself, I will be lonely."
"I am sure you can replay my image and words any time you want. With perfect clarity."
Ashree didn't feel comfortable with Rina's words. "It's not the same."
"Oh, funny robot. Then pretend it is. Can you pretend?"
Ashree didn't say anything.
"Ah well. It will be a shame, sure. But I can't do this anymore."
"You are still young."
"I'm almost 80, Ashree. I don't fancy surviving another five or six decades so I could farm potatoes on another planet."
Ashree didn't bother to suggest the frozen zygotes kept in the emergency fridge. But Rina could not have children. Whatever secrets her body kept hidden deep in its DNA, had eluded the careful screening of her ancestors and the best of the medical science the ship could offer. Most of her generation had been like that.
Was it a sudden radiation storm, Ashree wondered. Or chemicals? But the sensors had not detected any anomaly. Maybe it was the simple lack of desire to live that had made her barren.
It didn't matter. She was the last surviving crew member.
And even if she reached the planet, what would she do? She wasn't an engineer. She was a cook's daughter, and she had spent most of her life in the gardens, nourishing plants, creating new species. She wouldn't be able to create a colony. Not even with his help.
I am useless, Ashree thought. I can't protect her from herself. I couldn't protect any of them.
He had seen this before. Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. All of their faces and last moments etched in his cells, forever.
Guns had never been a part of the original tool set for the mission. But somehow, inevitably, every single time, the humans engineered killing weapons. It must be something old, something primitive ingrained in them, Ashree thought.
He couldn't physically stop her. They had made him extra fluffy and non-violent as a lesson from previous expeditions. He could hoist thousands of kilograms of equipment, he could survive bullets, but he couldn't lift the tiny piece of carbon and metal from Rina's hands.
"What will I do without you?" Ashree said.
"What robots always do. Keep computing probabilities." She laughed.
"I have emotions," he repeated. "I will be sad."
"No you won't be, funny robot."
His creators had realized early on that he would not be able to help humans unless he understood their motives. So they had spent a lot of time and invested in technology to give him a perception of how the human mind worked. He believed he understood most of the emotions.
And then, he had developed a few of his own.
I think I have.
Funny, no one ever asked him how he felt when they assembled him and gave him his memory. They were only interested in his reports.
"Why do you think my sadness is any less than yours?"
"Because, Ashree, you don't understand life."
"No, you don't. If you did, you wouldn't try to stop me."
"But you want to end your life, Rina."
"Life must have a purpose. Mine doesn't any longer."
"The purpose of life is to be. To survive."
"Silly robot. Yes, if you're an insect. Not if you're a human. There has to be more."
Ashree analyzed the thought. "Like what?"
"And you don't have love?"
Rina shielded her eyes and looked around the cabin in a very deliberate manner. "Do you see anyone here?"
"I am here."
"Yes, you are, you silly robot. But you're just a fancy tool. A handsome tool, but a tool nonetheless."
I am more than that, he wanted to protest.
Rina leaned forward. "Do you want to hear something weird?"
"I used to have a huge crush on you when I was young," she said. "It took me a good few years to learn that you're not actually human. I always thought you were a little awkward and distant, but I never figured it was because you're a machine. I was so disappointed. I cried for two nights."
Ashree kept silent.
"Please, Rina, don't kill yourself."
"Apart from your due diligence in keeping us all alive, any other reason you want this misery to continue?"
I can't say it, Ashree thought. I must not say it. So he said nothing.
"Ashree, if I didn't know you, I might actually believe you are sad."
"And you are crying now," he stated.
"I guess. I'm just tired. I can't look at the stars anymore. I can't stand all this whiteness, all this sterile madness. If I just look at the mission charts and read the distance numbers, I get sick. We were never meant to leave Earth. Space is too big for us."
"One day, Earth's resources will be depleted," Ashree narrated, feeling uncomfortable repeating from the mission's manifesto. "It is our primary goal to find other planets, so we can guarantee the existence of the human species." He paused. "If you kill yourself, it will have all been in vain."
"Silly robot. Not at all. You will send your report. And they will start afresh. Someone else will have to cope with the loneliness. I'm done." She put the pistol barrel against her forehead.
"Ashree, I need to ask you for a favor."
"For what it's worth, please don't report my death as suicide. Just tell them I died in my sleep."
Don't do this. "I will, Rina."
"Strange, isn't it? I don't know anyone back home, and all my family is long dead. Still..."
"Rina. What if I told you -"
She pulled the trigger and ended her life.
"- that I love you..." he finished.
But she couldn't hear him anymore. The last human on board Explorer 14 was dead.
The mission was over.
Ashree approached the corpse of the woman he loved. He placed a finger against her cheeks and wiped the tears away. Then, he touched the finger to his own eyes. Maybe his filters didn't work, but he really felt like crying now.
They hadn't programmed him to love.
That emotion was his own, entirely.
Back to business as usual.
He was just a silly robot, after all.
He went to the mission terminal and sent his last log. It would take two decades for the termination instruction to arrive.
One day, just one day, he may decide to disobey them and live on.
Only like Rina, he really didn't have a reason anymore.
He sat down, stopped his higher processing functions to block the pain and began counting the nanoseconds to the end.