Be Back Soon

This is Robbi.

Robbi sits quietly. Very still. In the not quite dark. Waiting.

Waiting for someone to arrive.

Around Robbi, the station gently hums. Little lights flash on and off in a steady pattern. Sometimes a gentle breeze flows around Robbi’s ankles. Robbi doesn’t notice.

Robbi is waiting.

A new light flashes and Robbi’s head turns. The room grows brighter and Robbi rises. A ship is knocking.

Robbi bustles to the console and answers the ship. “Come in!”

The station is clean and ready for visitors but Robbi walks quickly through each room to make sure nothing was overlooked after the last set of visitors, knowing that nothing has.

The dining room is clean, clean plates, clean forks. Buffet ready to be filled with food to serve the visitors.

The kitchen has woken up and fine-smelling food is bubbling on the stove, ready to move to the buffet. Fine wines flow from faucets on the walls. The ship has already told Robbi’s station what the visitors like to eat and drink.

The playroom is clean, all the games neatly put away, awaiting visitors. Pool cues neatly on the walls. Balls racked on the table. Video games beeping quietly to themselves, screens brightly shining. Colored board games stacked on shelves.

The gymnasium is ready. Balls neatly stacked. The pool is clean, clean towels folded nearby.

The gardens are ready. Paths swept, trees green, flowers neatly blooming in beautiful colors, birds singing.

The living room is clean. Robbi turns on some music to make the room warmer. On the walls hang gifts from past visitors, brought from across the universe, from stars so far away that they are just tiny points of light, so small that you almost wonder if you really see them at all or are maybe just imagining them. Robbi makes sure there are magazines and newspapers and books, and of course there are.

The station is ready and Robbi is awake.

The front door opens and the visitors enter, bringing life with them. They spill into the living room, and Robbi greets them happily. “Welcome, welcome!”

The visitors slap Robbi on the shoulder, smiling widely, and fan out, marveling on the things on the walls, remembering things they brought on their last visit. Admiring things other visitors brought, that they haven’t seen before.

Some of the visitors head for bedrooms – they just want a long nap in a bed that isn’t moving, in a room they don’t share with roommates. Some visitors go to the dining room and help themselves to fine foods and wine, delighted to eat something other than ship stew.

A few visitors wander toward the garden, smell the flowers, listen to the birds, sit and gaze up through the glass roof at the stars. Others go to the playroom and cheer each other on at darts and ping pong.

A bunch race down corridors to the gym, strip off their spacesuits and throw them on the floor; they cannonball into the pool, splashing water everywhere!

Robbi travels from room to room, making sure everyone has what they need. They welcome Robbi gladly, draw Robbi into a game of pool or a glass of wine. Talking to Robbi about where they have been this time, what they have seen out there, in the universe. The visitors always enjoy seeing Robbi, talking to Robbi. And Robbi loves spending time with them.

They stay for hours, days, weeks, sometimes months; sometimes it seems the visitors will stay forever, and that would be just fine with Robbi. When there are visitors, Robbi feels… well, Robbi feels like Robbi.

But too soon, it is over. The visitors pack their bags full of clean laundry, thank Robbi for the visit, give Robbi something new to hang on a living room wall, and file out through the exit, back to their ship. And then they are gone until next time.

Robbi roams through the station. In the dining room, station bots have straightened chairs and wiped crumbs off the table. Robbi moves a chair a fraction of an inch, although it doesn’t really need to be moved.

In the kitchen, food and wine is recycled, dishes are washed, pans replaced into cabinets, ready for next use.

In the playroom, pool cues are straightened neatly onto the walls, darts put away, games neatly stacked, fingerprints and cup rings wiped off of video games.

In the gym, the pool has already been treated to keep the water fresh, the balls are stacked, clean towels folded. No dirty towels hide under benches or behind the weight racks. All is well.

In the garden, the paths have been raked neatly and the plants trimmed. The temperature and air have been adjusted to keep the trees green and the flowers fresh and to let the birds sleep until the next visitors arrive.

In the bedrooms, Robbi checks that the beds have been made with clean sheets, the pillows fluffed, empty hangers straightened, trashcans emptied. All the work has been done perfectly. It has always been done perfectly when Robbi has checked.

In the living room, clutter has been picked up, old newspapers and magazines tossed into recycling, books replaced on the shelf, pillow cushions karate chopped. Robbi picks up the gift from the visitors and looks about the room at the walls, finds the perfect spot, hangs it there, and turns off the music. Then Robbi checks the controls that keep the station gently spinning in space and circulates the air just right so that dust doesn’t settle. All is set. The station will be ready when the next visitors arrive.

Then Robbi sits, very quietly, on the little chair in the corner. The lights dim. And Robbi waits.

But the next time that Robbi wakes up, the little light is still blinking steadily in the corner. There is no knocking. No ship waiting to come in. What woke Robbi up if there are no visitors?

Robbi walks slowly from room to room, looking for the answer. Not in the empty dining room. Not in the cold quiet kitchen. Not in the lifeless bedrooms or the neat game room or the waiting gymnasium.

Robbi walks into the garden. Birds and flowers are still sleeping peacefully. Robbi looks up at the stars through the glass ceiling. Each star is precisely where it should be. Exactly where the visitors will find it.

Robbi stares at the stars, mind gently turning. The station is Robbi’s home. Robbi has everything necessary there. Robbi has a purpose: someone has to take care of the visitors. Robbi is safe there.

And yet…

And yet.

Something stirs inside Robbi. Something wonders what the stars would look like, if viewed from somewhere else. From somewhere closer, for example. Somewhere a lot closer.

Robbi’s head shakes, as if to say No, and Robbi returns to the living room. To the little chair in the corner. Robbi sits. Robbi starts to wait. Then Robbi stops waiting and stands up. Walks briskly around the room, looking at the walls, not seeing the gifts the visitors have brought, just seeing walls.

“This is silly,” Robbi says out loud. Robbi returns to the chair and sits again – and then jumps up. Robbi walks to the center of the room and reaches up.

Although the visitors have never noticed it, there is a panel in the ceiling of the living room. If you look up, you can see squares outlined on the ceiling, like a decoration. Perhaps some visitor, lying on the couch, has looked up and noticed the squares, looked up and said, “Huh, the ceiling is decorated” before losing interest and drifting back into a nap.

But the squares aren’t just a decoration and Robbi knows that. Robbie stands just in the middle of the room, reaches up and presses the center of the square in the middle of the ceiling. The panel makes a soft click, then it slides away and a ladder comes down, right there in the middle of the living room, right in front of Robbi.

Robbi puts a hand on the ladder and looks up. Lifts a foot. Puts it down again on the floor. Robbi’s head shakes from side to side, No, what am I thinking, No. Robbi walks away from the ladder, across the room, then back again. Then Robbi puts both hands on the ladder, lifts a foot to the first step, and climbs.

At the top of the ladder – right there, above the living room ceiling, where it has always been – is a garage. And in the garage is a little spaceship. The spaceship has always been in the garage above the living room. Robbi has always known it was there. It’s there in case something happens to the station, something bad, so that Robbi can get the visitors safely away. Nothing has ever happened to the station. Nothing is happening to the station now. But Robbi opens the door to the spaceship. Robbi gets inside the spaceship, sits in the captain’s chair, puts on the seatbelt, and closes the door.

Then Robbi takes off the seatbelt, opens the door, and races back down the ladder to the living room. Robbi is only gone a few moments, then Robbi is back up the ladder, ladder pulled up into garage, living room panel shut, spaceship door closed, seatbelt on, and Robbi’s finger rests gently on the big green button, the one that says, Go!

Robbi pushes the button and the spaceship lifts away from the station towards those tiny stars in the distance.

Behind Robbi, the station waits. The rooms are ready. The garden is sleeping. The beds are made.

And on the front door to the station, the door that the visitors come through, there is a note. A note from Robbi.

It says, “Welcome! Make yourself at home. Be back soon. – Robbi.”

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