The Golden Key

The white-haired man picked up the toy soldier and held it out to Toby who took it from the shaking, bony fingers.

“Is it for me, Papa?” Toby asked.

“It is for you,” Papa answered.

Toby turned the little metal man in his hands. The soldier was dressed in a red uniform with black belt and fuzzy black hat. The tiny soldier’s face was very detailed with bright blue eyes, a pert nose and red-lipped mouth. Toby set the soldier on the table. The little toy man stood at rigid attention.

Papa held up a tiny silver key. “This goes into the little slot in his belly, like so.” Papa inserted the key and twisted it several times. At each turn of the key, a loud ratcheting sound came from inside the soldier.

He removed the key and the toy soldier took a step forward, looked around, then turned and marched to the edge of the table. The soldier stopped at the edge, looked up, then looked down, turned sharply and marched to the center of the table. The soldier turned toward Toby, saluted, and said in a tinny, little voice, “Major Littleton, at your service, Sir!” Toby clapped his hands and beamed at Papa.

“He’s wonderful, Papa. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome, Toby.”

Papa placed the silver key on the table in front of Toby. “Use this to wind him up when he needs it,” Papa said, and then leaned on the table and started coughing. The coughs were deep, racking coughs that went on for several minutes. When the coughs subsided, Papa sat slowly on a creaking stool beside the table, sweat beading across his wrinkled forehead. He wiped his lips and looked at his bloodstained fingers, sadness filling his watery eyes. It was time.

“Are you all right, Papa?” Toby asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. Come, let’s go for a walk.”

“In the garden?”

“Yes, in the garden.”

Toby reached for Major Littleton. “Leave him here for the moment. I want to talk with you Toby. I have something to tell you.”

“Okay, Papa.”

Papa shuffled out of the house and down the steps to the garden that covered what was at one time, a large front lawn. The grass had been tilled under years ago and replaced with corn, potatoes, squash, watermelons, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables. He breathed deep, coughing a little when he did so, but smiled at the earthy smell of the garden.

“I will miss this garden,” he whispered. Toby followed Papa into the garden.

“Follow me, Toby.” Papa continued down the path that cut through the garden and ended in a high wooden gate. The gate was set in a tall brick fence that completely encircled the house. Papa unlatched the gate and pulled it open. It swung aside with a rusty creak.

“Papa!” Toby cried as the door opened. “You said never to go outside the gate!”
“I did, Toby, but I want to show you something. Come, it’s all right.” Papa held out his hand and Toby grasped the bony fingers and let Papa lead him into the world beyond the fence.

“This,” said Papa motioning with his hand, “is what is left of human civilization.”
Toby looked around. They were standing on a path, like the path through the garden, only much wider and covered in strange stone. Ruined houses lined the stone path, looking like gaping animals with their broken windows and run-down frames. In the black path, large, rusting machines lay scattered among weeds that were growing up in the cracks of the black stone. A pile of white sticks lay near one machine.

“What is that, Papa?” Toby asked pointing at the pile of sticks.

“That is the skeletal remains of a person who lived here long ago. Let’s go this way.” Papa turned right and walked slowly down the white stone path that bordered the black path.

“It is time I told you what happened here,” Papa said, “so that it does not get forgotten and will never be repeated. Remember what I tell you, Toby.”

“I will, Papa.”

“I am an old man now Toby, ninety-eight at my last birthday. But I wasn’t always old,” Papa said with a smile. “When I was twenty I started working for a company here in the city. Can you guess what I did?”

Toby thought for a moment. “A toy maker?”

“Yes! Very good, Toby. I made toys for grown ups. We called them androids and they were like your little toy soldier. They did things for us. They did housework, they drove our taxis, they worked in the mines and went into space.”

Papa paused. When he spoke again, his voice was full of memories. “We sent an android expedition to Europa to study the moon. We knew that liquid water existed deep inside Europa, under the thick ice sheet. Where there is water, often times, there is life. The question we wanted answered was, was there life on Europa?”
Papa stopped and leaned against a rusting machine to catch his breath. “It was safer and cheaper to have an android expedition. The androids did not need life support and they could operate better under the extreme conditions of the moon. All we had to do was program them correctly. I worked on the team that created the androids for the mission.”

Papa stood and continued walking. “Everything seemed to go perfectly. The androids landed on Europa, drilled down through the ice and struck water. They took samples, ran tests and did indeed discover microscopic life on Europa. We had the samples stowed away and the ship returned to Earth.”

Papa paused and his voice was a sad, bitter thing, his mind very far away as he spoke. “I look back on it now and realize how arrogant we were. We thought we had fail-safe protocols in place to handle the alien organism. The androids followed proper decontamination procedures and stowed the samples in sealed containers before heading back. We even had them scan for residual traces of the organism on themselves and in the ship. Everything seemed clean.

“What we didn’t realize was that the organism had actually gotten inside the androids and was hiding in the brain bio-circuits. The brain of an android is actually a liquid computer that uses chemical reactions for computations. It was the only way to get enough computing power to mimic the human brain. Hiding inside the bio-circuits, the brain activity masked the presence of the organism.”

Papa stopped at a set of steps that lead up to a large building with huge pillars. Slowly he sat down on a dusty step. Toby sat beside him, looking up into the lined, weary face.

“We put the androids and the ship in quarantine when they landed and repeated all the tests. Everything seemed fine. Then suddenly, the androids started malfunctioning. NASA brought them to us for repair and when the technicians opened them up for examination, they discovered that they were infected with the alien organism.

“We went to high quarantine status, but when nobody seemed to be infected, we destroyed the androids and did a full clean of the lab. What we didn’t know was that the organism had pulled the same trick on us that it had pulled on the androids. The organism did not seem to raise an immune response, and so we didn’t know that the organism had spread, until it was too late.

“It took a month before the first human deaths occurred. People would be doing their normal activities and would simply fall over dead. Their brains simply quit working. When the organism reached a critical level, the brain just stopped.
“It spread so fast that we never had a chance. It killed 99% of the world’s population within six months. Of those remaining, 99% percent died simply because they could not feed themselves when society broke down. I don’t know how many humans are left. I haven’t seen one in decades.”

Papa stared at the silent, empty street. “I don’t know how or why I survived,” he said quietly. “Maybe this has been my punishment, or just random luck. I don’t know.”
Papa slowly stood and put out his hand to Toby. “Come. Let me show you something.”

Slowly Papa walked up the stairs to the building. At the top, Papa bent over and coughed for several minutes. When he stood, blood was on his mouth. “I haven’t much time,” he said. “In here.”

Papa pushed open a door and entered the building. Toby followed slowly, looking around with wonder. He was standing in a huge room filled with shelf after shelf of books.

“Most of the knowledge of humanity is in this building Toby,” Papa said falling into a chair and breathing hard. “I am dying Toby, I won’t be with you much longer. Humanity has had a chance. It is now your turn.”

Papa reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold key. He lifted Toby’s shirt and inserted the key into a slot in the android’s stomach and turned it. There was a click and a subtle change occurred in Toby. The child-like expression of puzzlement and wonder changed into concern and there was a new awareness in the bright, blue eyes.

“You are in self-determination mode now, Toby. You will need to make your own decisions from now on. In my safe in the workshop you will find plans to make more androids. You know the combination; I programmed it into your memory circuits. You and those androids you make are immune to the alien pathogen. I had to be sure so I created you as my test case.

“In this library you will find everything you need to know to start a new civilization. But you need to make it your civilization Toby, not just a copy of human civilization. The basic knowledge is here, but you must make it your own. You must try things your way, not our way.”

“Yes, Papa, I will.” Toby knelt by the old man and gently grasped a trembling hand. “I will miss you, Papa.”

“I will miss you, Son.“