The massive entryway left me filled with what I could only assume was uncertainty. Being new to the concept of feelings I wasn’t certain, and even a probability of ninety-two point four percent didn’t help.
The being was tall, nearly eight feet in height, so he looked down on anyone who approached. Clean-shaven, he was clad in distressed jeans and a Van Halen tee shirt … and wings. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, but I knew he was older. Much older. The look of scorn he gave me seemed out of character for an angel, but perhaps he sensed my doubt.
His nod was polite but cold, like a doorman to a street person. “May I help you with directions to somewhere else?”
“No, I am where I want to be. My name is Ron. I wish to enter.” Before he could reply I added with a shrug, “From the stories, I expected Saint Peter in a robe next to a pearly gate.” I inspected the bent and twisted old fencing with the rusted lock that looked like it hadn’t been opened in centuries.
He sneered. “So old school. That went out with harps and halos. With our volume of business we’ve had to upgrade to more modern practices.” He gave me a sharp look. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. You may not enter.”
“I see. May I ask why?”
He seemed surprised that I would question his authority. “Why, because you’re not human. Your full name is Robot One Nine.”
I raised a hand and inspected my titanium fingers. “Of course I am not human. I am a robot. But what does that have to do with the situation?”
“Only humans can earn the passage to paradise.”
“That seems unfair. Explain?”
He looked genuinely baffled by the question. Apparently no one other than humans had ever attempted to enter. He stood there, mouth open for several seconds, then responded. “Only beings with a soul may cross the threshold.” With a smirk, he added, “You do know what a soul is, don’t you?”
I always envisioned angels as being helpful and sweet. Obviously in reality they were closer to humans than we thought.
My memory contained thirty-one different dictionaries. In two nanoseconds I had looked through each meaning and selected the one that best fit the situation. “A soul is the immaterial essence of an individual life.”
His grin grew wider. “There. You see? Life. You cannot enter because you are not alive. You’re a machine.”
“Alive?” Again I drew on the definitions stored inside me. “Life is the difference between a functioning being and an inanimate one. I function, but so do lesser machines. The key is whether I am a ‘being.’”
Once again my inner workings seemed troubled. I didn’t understand how human beings coped with emotions. Too unsettling.
I pressed on. “If I am not alive, I should not be here … but yet I am. Something inside me compelled me to come to this place.”
His smirk vanished and he took a closer look. “And did you … ,” He searched for words, “ … die?”
“After 187 years of service, critical parts failed and my consciousness ceased to exist.” With a start I realized something. “I am functioning normally again. Ninety-eight point seven percent. My efficiency has not been this high since I was activated. Interesting.”
The angel leaned forward. “So you did die or cease. But now you’re back and better than ever.” His attitude seemed to change and he looked the way humans liked to call ‘sad.’ “Still, you do not qualify to enter.”
I nodded. “Because I cannot prove that I am alive. Descartes said, ‘I think. Therefore I am.’ I think. Ergo, I live.”
The angel shook his head. “What you perceive as thought is due to your programming. You don’t really think.”
I wasn’t convinced. “But aren’t we all programmed from the moment a spark occurs to begin our existence? Babies are not self-aware when they emerge. They have to learn to use their senses. Each move, each touch or smell or sight adds to their understanding of the physical world and, over time, they acquire the skills to walk, to talk, to take care of themselves. To grow.”
Several people stood behind us now, watching. Humans. They studied me, perhaps trying to build a case for their entry after I was rejected.
I turned back to the gate. “When my creators activated me, my programming was not complete. Granted I could walk and talk, but I was lacking in the social skills needed to deal with people. These people, these humans recognized this and allowed me to observe them at their work and play. I learned from this. I grew. And isn’t that truly the meaning of life?”
The angel’s eyes got bigger and he nodded, so I raised myself to my full height and continued. “I grew. Not in size but in knowledge and skill. I perceived man’s inadequate mental and physical powers. Knowing how fragile humans are, and the inferiority of flesh taught me to be gentle with them, especially the children. But I also saw that they had a dream of one day standing before these gates and, if they led a good life and did right by others, they could spend eternity here in peace and love.”
I folded my arms before me. “I too have strived to do right during my existence on Earth. I deserve to be considered, not for what I’m made of, but what I’ve made of myself.”
The angel smiled and everything blurred for a second. In place of the rusting gate stood a golden archway, decorated with jewels of all descriptions. The towering angel was gone, replaced by an ancient white-bearded man with eyes that twinkled. “Like our Lord who bent to wash the feet of others, you have spent your life in servitude. You have indeed earned a spot with us. Welcome to forever!”
As he led me through the gates I had a thought. “If you knew I deserved to enter, why did you not just let me in?”
He laughed as he hobbled through the gate. “The final test. It’s not enough for me to know you are deserving. In your heart you must know.”
“But I have no heart.”
He put an arm on my shoulder. “The heart I speak of is linked to the soul. Invisible, yet the two are interchangeable. Believe me when I say that you have both. You’ve led a good life.”
A good life. My life. For the first time, I thought I understood the emotion of pride.
Text copyright © 2020 by Stephen A. Fox. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: After thirty-two years in the classroom, Stephen A. Fox retired to devote more time to his writing. He has published numerous stories in anthologies such as Cover of Darkness, The Pettigru Review, The Rabbit Hole, and Nothing to Dread: A Niteblade Anthology. Other stories have appeared in Beyond Centauri magazine and various websites.