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The Greeter by Christopher Butt

The giant Inukshuk stood tall in the frozen wasteland. A lone solitary beacon, its black stone a deep contrast to the white hills of snow. Behind it was a long abandoned outpost used as a resting point and resupply depot for travellers heading to the outer regions of the galaxy.

Tucked away behind one of the Inukshuk’s legs was a small building where a shimmer of light could be seen through the snow-covered windows. A sign reading ‘Visitor’s Centre’ could just be seen behind the icicles hanging from the roof.

Inside the building, walking amongst the shelves of trinkets and souvenirs, was a tall sleek robot wearing a tuxedo. Its black head with camera eyes scanned the small shop as it moved with quiet efficiency, dusting and adjusting the stock for maximum appeal. The words WHO-113 were written across a name tag which hung on the right side of its chest.

In the viewing room behind the shop, a movie was playing. It depicted the first pioneers of this frozen planet, the only one in the system to be colonized. WHO-113 ignored the dialogue as the show had been playing every day for the last three years.

Once it completed its chores, WHO-113 walked to a small makeshift office just off the shop and turned on a small computer. He turned on a small microphone and spoke into it.

“Welcoming Humanoid Official 113 logging in as programmed. Visitor Center is open, and all systems are functioning within parameters. It has now been five hundred and seventy-three days since our last visitor. I stand ready to welcome anyone and give the guided tours through the display of this planet's most excellent history. Welcoming Humanoid Official 113 signing out.”

The recording was the same every day. WHO-113 checked the radar screens and confirmed that the landing area was clear and no ships were in the sky. Satisfied that he was alone, WHO-113 went to the video player and shut off the movie. He selected his personal file and hit the play button. Walking out into the viewing area, WHO-113 turned out all the lights.

On the screen, children were grabbing toys and trinkets off the shelves as their parents tried to corral them. WHO-113 watched the scene intently, remembering the shop being filled with customers. He saw the faces of visitors gazing at the displays as he gave tours, and of course cleaning up their trays from the cafeteria. The robot wondered if the food processors were still working. He made a note to check.

When the visitor recordings had finished, WHO-113 selected the file for his last day. He watched as his supervisor informed him that the outpost was being abandoned and the Visitor Centre was going to stay open until the power ran out. He remembered watching the last of the ships departing. His friend Wanda, a plump reddish haired woman who helped run the gift shop, gave him a big hug and kissed his face before pulling her hood up and running to her ship.

Once the last ship departed and broke through the atmosphere, silence dominated the landscape, only to be interrupted by the sound of the blowing wind. WHO-113 gazed at the dark screen for a moment in complete silence.

Dust danced in the air as WHO-113 returned to the viewer to replay the movie. Before he pressed play, a flicker in the lights informed him that the automatic refuelling of the generators had started. The screen on the viewer clicked on and off and an old file appeared at the bottom of the screen with the name ‘Sara’.

Sara was the name of the woman who had been left behind and had shown up at the Visitor Centre. WHO-113 stared at the file, remembering the woman. He surmised that the computer would have saved all her recordings for historical data. WHO-113 stared at the file and with unusual hesitation, tapped the file and returned to the viewing area.

On the screen a woman stood in front of the door, her brown hair draped over her fur hood. Sara explained that she was on a mission to map the southern reaches of the continent. Her ship had crashed and the local authority ordered a search and rescue but found nothing. Sarah spent six weeks walking back to the base only to find it abandoned.

WHO-113 treated her injuries, gave her food and warm clothes. After a week Sara was physically better but her spirit was broken. Her speech rambled and one day she appeared naked in front of him.

WHO-113’s eyes clicked as he stared at the screen, remembering her touch. He didn’t understand what they shared but it influenced her. A few days later Sara left. He tried to convince her to stay, offering to activate part of the outpost but she refused.

“I need human contact,” she said and walked out the door. The closed door remained on the screen until it was followed the image of her body, lying two hundred metres from the Center.

Darkness enveloped WHO-113 as the screen went blank. He stared at his hands recalling the task of recovering her body and placing it in the morgue. Looking at her body, he wondered if his Emotion Algorithm, a last-minute programing initiative, had been activated, would he have understood the woman’s need? Would she have stayed?

WHO-113 turned from the screen and, using his internal computer, accessed the following command, “Activate Emotion Algorithm. Yes. No.” He selected ‘Yes’ and went back to the viewer and selected the ‘Sara’ file again.

Emotions flooded his system as he watched. Feelings of being abandoned, loneliness, Sara’s attempt at love, the children in the shop, the possibility of no one ever coming to visit again. He dropped to his knees and screamed. The woman’s touch came alive within him, and he struggled to control himself. When he saw the image of her body, he screamed again and ran to the shop.

The sound of breaking shelves and shattering glass filled the Centre. Trinkets and toys were crushed under his feet. Within minutes the gift shop was a mess.

He ran outside through the snow until he was far enough away to turn and gaze at the Inukshuk. Dropping to his knees, WHO-113 screamed an incoherent sound that echoed off the mountains. He put his face in his hands and moaned because he couldn’t shed tears.

When he arrived back at the Centre, WHO-113 looked around and surveyed the damage. He disengaged his emotions. As his cold robotic commands returned, WHO-113 went to the closet and extracted a broom.

Three days later, the shop was fixed up, the movie played in the viewing room, and all the stock had been replaced from storage. WHO-113 checked out his appearance in the mirror and straightened his tie. His newly polished head glowed in the fluorescent lights and reflected his surroundings.

He walked over to the front door switched on the ‘Open’ sign. He had already recorded his log entry citing a power failure for the missed days. WHO-113 stood in the middle of the shop and stared at the front door. He was ready. Outside the cold wind blew across the plains. There was no one in sight.

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