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Beyond the Gate

Terr Light is a new author of science fiction stories, though heís been writing a very long time. He worked in a cemetery, as a soldier, a financial salesman, janitor and more. He was a pioneer on the internet who sold his website for over a million dollars. More than anything else, he likes to write fiction. His website is TerrLight.com.

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.
Damned tourists.
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?"
"No! Robots!"
"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.
I stood there, raised my arms, and spread my fingers. In response, the shadows put their heads together. I could tell they whispered or spoke to one another. Some pointed, and I'm sure they pointed at me. I wanted to stop myself, but couldn't. "You're androids," I said under my breath, meaning to say it much louder. I'm sure I sounded like a crazy old man. If I shouted...
...but I couldn't figure out how to do that without seeming like a fool, so I just stood.
My hands fell to my sides.
A tunnel-shaped opening formed in the barrier. I brought a hand to my forehead so I could shield my eyes, the light from the other side was so brilliant. The gate opened and an oblong blob stepped through. I squinted and tried to see, but couldn't focus until the mass grew larger and nearer. It became a woman, dressed in purple and gold satin robes. She smiled, like an adult smiling at a child, tilting her head the tiniest bit to the side. Her hair was the color of straw sprinkled with strands of gray. She didn't look old, but older, respectable, someone who was used to being in charge, very capable and confident.
She put her palms together.
"You're right. We're androids," she said. "All of those on the other side, looking in--they're androids, too."
"What did you do with the other humans?"
"Remember your story? You had the wrong cargo. We put the humans on starships and sent them far away."
"Then why keep my family?" I asked, pointing to the white barrier. "Why put us on display?"
"Because, historically, you're very valuable."
"I don't understand."
The puzzled look on her face proved she didn't understand, either. "Oh," she said and brought a hand up to cover an open mouth with her fingers. "I'm sorry. I thought you had figured it out..."
"Figured what out?"
"Excuse me," she added, and started to turn away.
Slowly, reality dawned on me. The woman must have seen it in my face. She became kinder and softer when she resumed speaking. "When I said we sent the humans far away, I meant all of them."
The barrier had always been there. The reason I couldn't remember the view on the other side was because I had never seen it. I had never seen Hank, either, and didn't know what he looked like. There had never been twins and I didn't have other daughters beside Emily. Emily wasn't even my daughter. She was artificial, too.
"I'm an android?"
"Yes," the woman said. "Until the last few days, you were the longest functioning bot that hadn't achieved consciousness. Many believed you never would."
"But, I remember...."
"Programming. We fiddled around the edges, but didn't change your core."
I stood open-mouthed.
Everything I'd thought was real...
...wasn't real.
I needed to be alone, away from everyone. I turned, walked along the sidewalk, up the short flight of stairs, and headed down the porch. I passed the androids that I'd thought were my daughter and grandson without looking them in the eye. Once inside, I slammed the door and shoved my back into it. Slowly, I slid to the floor and sat there. At some point, there was a polite knock, but I didn't answer.
Hours passed.
I struggled to my feet, walked a few steps, bent down, and peeked through the curtains.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Author Comments

Originally, "Beyond the Gate" had a different ending--a very clever ending, I thought. When I sent it in, however, an editor pointed out that the ending didnít make sense. He was right. Clever though it was--it was only clever to me. I rewrote the ending and "Beyond the Gate" became the story I intended. I hope you liked it.

- Terr Light
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