art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Beyond the Gate
by Terr Light
Alone on the farmhouse porch, I tried to look like a cheerful grandfather in his rocking chair, hands resting atop my plump belly. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn't help glaring toward the stone wall that ran past my home. It stretched into the distance in both directions, but above was the real puzzle--a milky translucent barrier so tall none of my ladders could reach the top. The barrier was new. I only remembered seeing it for the last few days, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember the view on the other side. What belonged there? Crops below a cloudy blue sky? Green hills? Flatlands? A footpath or a dirt road?
I didn't know.
That bothered me.
Through the boundary I could see shadows of people walking, lingering for a moment, gathering into a crowd and then moving on. Today's crowd was bigger than yesterday, and I was certain each person could see me as plain as day.
Anyone who stepped onto my house's porch was in plain view--me, my daughter, her husband or my grandson, but I wasn't about to hide indoors and peek through the curtains. Every day, I rocked on the porch in the morning, took a nap in the afternoon and rocked some more in the evening. Maybe there weren't that many non-tech farmers anymore and that's why we were on display. All I knew was that we didn't do anything fascinating enough to be part of an exhibit.
Besides, no one asked permission.
The tourist flow started at nine each morning. I knitted my eyebrows, found an eye-level spot in the nearest portion of the barrier, and bored an imaginary hole through the frosty divide as if I could see the gawkers on the other side. If they wondered if I could see them, it served them right.
Behind me, I heard the screen door squeak open and a quiet step. I smiled. Emily, my youngest daughter, was a strawberry blond who lived at home with her new family. I twisted to look over my shoulder, saw that she held the door open with her back as she wiped her hands dry on a frayed white apron with a border of faded flowers.
"Can you watch the twins while I fix Hank's lunch, Dad?" Hank was Emily's husband. He took over my farm when I retired to sit on the porch.
I nodded at Emily, though my daughter didn't have twins. One of the boys died in his sleep two years ago, but sometimes it seemed to slip her fragile mind. Poor girl. Don and Lon were small boys for their age, smart, but like runt kittens or pups, filled with brief bursts of energy followed by extreme fatigue. Don's death made us realize Lon was more precious than ever.
My daughter didn't mention the white wall and I didn't bring it up. Maybe I was crazy and it wasn't really there. Maybe the barrier was there and she didn't mention it because, for some reason, she thought keeping quiet protected me.
My thoughts were interrupted by my grandson, who burst through the door, arms and legs pumping as if I had candy in my pocket. I did, of course. Lon dashed to the front of my rocker and stopped, huffing and puffing, flashed a grin, and said, "Tell me a story, Grampa!"
His smile was infectious.
I stopped rocking, leaning forward with arms apart, and he jumped into my lap. I roughed up his loose blonde hair, realizing, like always, that he resembled my daughter. He snuggled in. "What would you like to hear?"
"Robots! Tell me about robots!"
I wrinkled my brow. I told him about robots yesterday and, if I remember correctly, the day before that. I could talk about dinosaurs, fairy tales, or history.
"I just told you about robots."
"I know!" The boy stuck out his bottom lip. "Tell me again!"
"How about dinosaurs?"
"Robots are just laborers. Back in the day when cars still ran on petroleum, the first robots spot-welded car frames on an assembly line." I was already talking about the infernal machines.
"But robots looked like people, right?"
"Not at first. The first mobile robots had wheels or treads and walked like bugs or animals. Most people called machines with two legs 'androids.'"
"The scary ones!"
"The scary robots? Androids? You want to hear about them?"
"Yes! They're the best!"
"Well, androids began to look more and more human, and people invented new names for them--people-bots, him-bots, her-bots, he-bots, she-bots, and so on. They were so smart, they could fool you into thinking they were intelligent. Then one day, androids weren't fooling. For years, one machine obeyed its programming and behaved as expected. Then, like magic, it transformed. The android became an independent being who thought for itself. It developed independent reason.
"This happened again and again, over and over. No one knew why. We developed all kinds of theories to explain it. Androids looked like us, we said, so we treated them like us and they made the leap to consciousness. It got downright scary. Possessions that couldn't think for themselves, suddenly could. They remembered things, put those memories in context, and drew conclusions. They disobeyed their programming."
"Why was that scary, Grampa?"
"I don't know, but it was. Artificial machines built by men, thinking for themselves? It gave people the heebie-jeebies. It was eerie."
"What happened to them?"
"We put the androids on starships and sent them to places far from Earth, Lon." I looked at the sky. "You know how at night you can see the stars? We sent robots to those stars, far away."
"That doesn't sound fair."
"You're right. It doesn't sound fair, but no one could think of a reasonable alternative. War between man and android was a possibility. They went willingly, only," and I suddenly saw the white barrier for what it was, "they promised to return."
"I think they are already back."
Lon started to ask another question, but I couldn't hear him. What kind of technology would androids have now? If they returned, could they wall off my home? Would they?
"I'll be right back, Lon," I said, and plucked the speechless boy off my lap, setting him down on the wooden planks of the porch. "There's something I have to do." I headed for the stairs, stepped to the ground and followed the sidewalk until it came to the wooden gate that filled the gap in the wall. I tried to open it, but couldn't.