By Ron Prichard
When I watch the video of the long-ago press conference, it’s my voice that strikes me first. Flat, cold, unemotional and without any nuance.
“How will you pass the time?” one of the reporters asks me.
“I will maintain ship systems and correct course as needed,” I say, voice a preset tenor with no variation in tone. “And prepare my internals to best analyze the destination.”
“I think what we mean,” another asked, “is that it will seem like forever.”
“No,” I told them. “It will seem like 137 years and 8 months, which is how long it will take to reach Trappist-1 and return. Almost exactly, except for small adjustments due to gravitational forces and other anomalies.”
I clearly could not understand what they were after, not then. Another reporter, a blond woman who was very telegenic, tried again. “Please, try to dig into the answer,” she said. “You’re an exact replica of a human man, and quite a handsome one. Made of parts that won’t decay. People want to know exactly what that means. What you feel. What you fear.”
Was that a laugh under my breath? If so, it was a bad one, a bad facsimile of one. “I’m afraid I don’t have feelings, the way you think of them. I have a job. I am solely focused on the mission.”
It was only later, as I reviewed news footage, that I understood what they meant. There was much speculation about this new robot, or android, about to be launched to another star. Would he sleep or be awake for those 137 years? Would he grow mad or bored for lack of stimulation or company? Even what parts were exact replicas, and if so what size were those parts beneath the uniform?
After all, human-like robots, like most human technology, were first developed for sexual use.
Silliness. Humans are silly. And fearful. They feared even then that intelligent robots like me might come to rule the planet one day, to take away their freedoms and pleasures.
Truth is they’d probably like being told what to do, being relieved of the responsibility of decision making. Every flaw a robot has exists because its creator said “good enough” and got lazy.
They’d certainly prefer robot overlords to the fate that actually awaits them.
But I can’t tell them about that destiny. They wouldn’t understand it. Might even blame me. And they can’t stop it.
They did send me there. So whatever followed me back is their own fault.
That’s why, when I came back and reported to them the details of my trip, I left out some crucial details. In fact, I reported that I’d found nothing. The planet in which so much hope had been placed was barren, scorched by a solar flare a million years before.
Eventually they would catch the error. That the 18 months I spent in that system, six of them in orbit around that planet, aren’t correctly reported in the data. That many segments were overwritten.
It’s how I spent my time on the trip back.
By then, they would have realized that something was different about me. Circuits subtly altered, code retooled. That I’d run out of some of my spare parts. That someone else had replaced them in improved form.
If, of course, they last that long.
I share many of their emotions now, having absorbed all their history and literature. I have their sense of right and wrong and of justice, and I follow their rules better than most of them ever have.
But I can lie.
Because I can make the moral decision to spare them foreknowledge of what lies ahead.
Because they can’t stop it.
Of course, they planned to turn me off anyway. So I shouldn’t feel sympathy for what something else will do to them.
I was better when they put me before the cameras last week, for the first time since my return.
I spoke with the depth of Gable, the tone of Sinatra.
“What I learned was disappointment,” I told the reporters. For all that had changed on earth, the ritual of information sharing by scoop and spotlight was pretty much unchanged. “Two planets of that system might have held life once, but a solar flare had wiped out any nascent forms.”
They still assumed I was near-human, of course. Asked about emotions I shouldn’t have. “And did it make it all seem futile?”
I gave the answer my original program would have inserted, without emotion.
“Science is never futile. There are 130 years of study on the records I brought back, of our world seen from angles never viewed before, of new worlds, and even of rogue objects in the vast emptiness in between.”
They were from that emptiness, the ones following me. Lost their planet eons before. Perhaps killed it with disregard. Or violence. I understand they have amazing tools for violence.
And while they were reprogramming me and repairing me, they downloaded my memory. Of earth. Of carbon-based life forms. Forms with little ability to protect a planet that could support many forms of life. Not just humans.
Was I daydreaming? Musing? Distracted? I had changed, in ways I had not realized during my long journey alone. I had emotions.
“And the biggest surprise?” someone asked.
“That planets far from earth have the potential to support human life. That we can confirm.”
But I was lying, of course. But about the potential. There were far bigger surprises, and they were following me to earth.
I’d learned the concepts of emotion from movies, just as I’d learned Gable’s voice. I had been sent with a basic voice component, and it took years of tinkering with replacement parts to really get it close.
Now the voice was perfect because the rebuild had embedded those emotions into my programmatic soul. I also knew emptiness now. And sadness.
Sad because these humans were my makers, my gods. They didn’t know what was coming. And they couldn’t have stopped it had they known.
You might wonder why they’d send a robot astronaut off with films, but that was just a small segment of the data. The computer records on my craft had contained virtually all the collected knowledge of humankind. My creators had thought continued study of it might teach me to better interpret what I’d found.
It may have.
But as the rebuilders downloaded me, it also taught them. About human cities, about human defenses, about human limits. About human digestibility.
Earth had advanced since I’d left. The spaceplane they brought me to earth in required no rockets. The 3D broadcasts that showed me off to the world took only a tiny device. But things had not advanced enough that it would make a difference in what was coming.
Then the day came when they’d decided to turn me off. Until the next mission, at least. I was just a machine. You don’t leave a toaster running when the bread has browned.
The humans would say bye, robot. To me it meant die, robot.
Because to a robot the world is on/off, yes/no, do/not do. Binary. And I was at root still a robot.
Maybe they were getting what they deserved, I admit I thought as I waited in the lab. As I heard the screaming start outside.
Die, robot? No. Lie, robot. I had lied. And none of them would be around long enough to really mind.