"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
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
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
"I have emotions too, you know," the robot
"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
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
"Do you want me to beg?" Ashree said.
Rina smiled. "Silly robot. Beg? What good would
"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
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,"
"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
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
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
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
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,
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."
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.