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King of All and the Metal Sentinel

a short story
by Deborah Biancotti

King of All regarded the sky with his one good eye.

"I am King of All I Survey," he mused. "Named after my mistress's father. And since I survey this -- the sky! -- so I must be master of it."

The thought pleased him. He moved his head slowly from side to side, servos whining in his long neck.

"I am King of the Sky," he told the granite-faced goblins to left and right. News they took with stony solemnity. "King of All," he added to himself. After the decades on this roof, any voice was comforting. Even his own.

He began another slow circuit along the wall walk, pausing to greet each of the six familiar towers like an old friend. King had a tottering limp, his right rear leg sticking on every forward movement. Backwards was okay, but without rear video feed, the prospect was daunting. So King continued forwards. Or, to his mind, without a backward glance.

His limp wasn't the only legacy of the accident.

"Accident," he muttered out loud.

He was sure that's what it was. With his back welded stiff from the blast thirty-five years ago, there were other things he couldn't do. Like chase his tail. Or make the movements necessary for going down stairs. Up stairs was fine, but King had run out of stairs that went up. And so he lived on the roof, weathering the seasons as best he could.

From the corner of his eye, he spied the flowering corrosion of the scorch mark along his metal back. When it rained, he could hear water sloshing around his insides. Luckily, most of his programming resided in his head -- an anthropomorphic touch his creator had probably been proud of.

"No harm done," he consoled himself every day. It was a lie, but he allowed it. "Still ticking," he told himself with a grin.

The turbine in his chest hummed in reply.

King missed the warm, dry insides of the castle. He even missed his fellow mechanical labori. Some of whom, he supposed, might even still be active. But they'd been programmed for only the meekest of work and in King's experience, not one had been fitted with voice-com. The Queen, who loved silences of all kinds, found voices unnecessary in servants. She made an exception only once for her daughter's new toy. Provided he never spoke in her presence.

"I can't hear the ocean with you making all that noise," she'd whisper hoarsely, towering above him in her mountainous satin gown.

In her rooms at the castle centre, the ocean was a bare murmur. But here on the roof it roared and wailed like a wounded thing. The Queen, he reflected, would hate it here.

He trotted up to a favourite spot on the parapet and reached his front bipeds onto the embrasure edge. Easing himself upwards, he pushed forward and out so he could peer over the battlement of the castle's inner wall.

In front of him, the shorter curtain wall wrapped the castle, separated from King's own by a space of nearly ten metres. The curtain wall was the castle's first defence, and it stood braced against the onslaught of forest and plain and -- directly to his right -- ocean. King looked down to the space between the walls and examined again the vivid green grasses beneath him. Slowly, he swung his head once to the left, holding it at the edge of its range. He waited, poised in that position as if frozen.

Thirty-one minutes later, the sun glinted off a metal sphere 200 metres below. King attempted the tail-wagging program, but found the routine corrupted. He followed the smooth progress of the metal body beneath him, turning his head to keep the shape in sight. It slid through the long grass, skimming the edge of the inner wall. When it disappeared around the corner, King let out a soft electronic whine.

He spent the rest of the afternoon there, watching the sphere appear and disappear at exactly forty-seven minute intervals.

Sentinel QR73X8 -- S-QR, for short -- continued his rounds of the castle all day. He was executing a non-native program -- one of his own design -- and he was well aware that he wasn't intended for surveillance work. But in the absence of any other fit sentinel units, he had appropriated the role. And once he'd made that decision, he was determined to stick to it.

The fallen Guards dotted his route. They were three-times his size and equipped with weapons and protocols he couldn't begin to understand. They were also completely inactive. Some were burned from the fires that had fallen from the sky. Others merely lay there, as pristine as the day they were bought.

"Because we need more power than you," Chief Guard, KS-X93Z9, had explained. "The back-up solar panels on the guard house were all wiped out by comets. And now the uranium pulley from the castle is jammed. Without a steady supply, we're done for, Toy."

S-QR had absorbed the information solemnly. The panels on his tiny hut in the rose garden were mercifully undamaged, but it seemed impolite to mention this.

Reflecting on that conversation now, S-QR realised he'd just passed the Chief Guard's resting place. He paused, reversed direction smoothly, and skimmed backwards to pay his respects.

The Chief lay close to the outer wall, sinking decade by decade into the long grasses. His body appeared undamaged, although the cameras lining his upper quadrant were blank.

"Not really a sentinel, are you?" said KS-X93Z9 the day S-QR arrived. "Not built for it. Not tough."

S-QR had to concede the correctness of that. "OK," he had said.

KS-X93Z9 had sat stolidly in the air a moment. "So, what are you?"

"A … novelty unit," he'd told the shape hovering above him.

"Novelty unit?" "KS-X93Z9 had replied, more with surprise than cruelty.

"Yes. For the Queen's garden."

"Well. Queen's man, eh?" rumbled "KS-X93Z9. "Not so bad, then. If we ever need help patrolling the Rim, we can count on you, eh, Toy? Think you could handle that?"

S-QR reflected. He had only one weapon, added as an afterthought by his programmer, and not really designed for defence. A small laser with which he could turn props into smoldering rubble on command. Intended solely to create mirth in an educated audience.

But he could see well enough for any patrol. Three-hundred-and-sixty degree data from twenty-eight separate visual feeds dotting his spherical frame added up to one extreme 3D image of the world.

"OK," he'd agreed.

He had set to work learning his new task, rushing after the larger units in their rounds. The Rim Between, KS-X93Z9 had told him, was by definition the route currently occupied by a sentinel unit. So wherever he was, it was his duty to protect the inside. Repel the outside. Most of the time, the Rim they patrolled was the space between the high inner wall and lower curtain wall of the castle.

That was forty years ago. S-QR still patrolled the Rim Between all day long. Protect the inside, repel the outside. That's the idea. His databanks had corrupted only minimally over the decades since he'd taken up sentinel responsibility. Some days he couldn't remember which was inside and which was out. But since very little appeared to challenge him, it didn't seem to matter.

So long as he remembered the Rim. Wherever he was, he controlled the Rim. He was determined to continue his rounds for as long as order held.

In the intervening years, the ground had become gorged with weeds. It bothered him that the castle should suffer this disrespect. But there was little he could about gardening, lacking arms. It bothered him more that with the northern gates now hanging from their hinges, the dense tangle of woods was leaning in towards the Rim. And behind the fallen Southern gates, the ocean boiled for miles into the horizon.

S-QR continued to guard the Rim all that day, like he did every day, until purple twilight brushed against the walls. Lacking proper night-vision, he made his way back through the thorny vines to his hut, dragging the Rim with him.

"I am King of All I Survey," King told himself. "I am King of the Night."

He sat by the door that led back down into the castle. The accident those many long years ago had been terrifying, but the continued absence of his mistress, Keagan, disturbed him more.

Keagan was a young princess and of ordinary childish cruelty, or so King believed. She was prone to tearing madly about the castle and desiring to be chased, although always resenting being caught. She liked to eat her supper on the floor with her favourite toy and never enjoyed having her hair combed. All this King learned quickly as they roamed the castle's rooms. He became expert at predicting human behaviour, but never really felt he understood it.

They never ventured outside without permission from her parents, who took turns doting on and then ignoring their only daughter. In contrast, young Keagan was King's central focus. She demanded almost all of his attention. Which suited him fine, because he had a lot of attention to give.

"You're not to go outside without me, King," Keagan had told him the morning she unwrapped him from his box. "Not ever! That's no place for indoor labori. Stay inside."

"Understood," said King, with a grin.

"See that?" Keagan had pointed. "That's a sentinel."

King looked out the window at the massive floating units. They were huge, and patrolled the castle grounds with a synthetic single-mindedness he wholeheartedly admired.

"They'll kill a little unit like you," Keagan had promised. King didn't quite understand the threat, but he took note of Keagan's expression and nodded somberly. He searched his databanks, but killing and being killed were not required concepts.

"If they kill you, you have to play dead forever!" explained Keagan.

'Play dead' had no more meaning to King than 'lie still', but judging from Keagan's solemn stare, forever was a long time.

So King fetched, followed and generally radiated good will as best he could.

Then the lights had come out of the sky, sizzling through the castle walls, burning furnishings and flesh equally, upending labori too slow to dodge them. King stuck close to his young mistress. Not out of fear, which he hadn't yet learned, but out of respect for Keagan's evident distress. That's what a pet is for, King had thought gladly, to love his mistress.

He'd followed Keagan into her mother's room, populated by an army of the queen's personal labori. The metal units were holding aloft towels and brushes in various of their arms, but otherwise they appeared aimless. They skittered across the carpets, frequently bumping each other in their chaotic haste. Something has them rattled, King thought. The Queen won't like this.

"Mummy!" Keagan had screamed then.

King wasn't sure what possessed her to say that. The Queen was obviously not there. Certainly, visual input led him at first to believe that the shape on the floor was the Queen. The resemblance was very close, right down to the satin dress fanned out around it. However, the olfactory data had been radically incorrect for that conclusion, and there was an absence of familiar bio-chem information. Perhaps Keagan had not processed that yet.

The next fireball caught Keagan along the top of her head. She continued to kneel upright for nearly a minute, during which time available visual input re-confirmed to King that this was indeed his mistress silently balancing in front of him. But as the shape fell towards the carpet, the other, contradictory data had overwhelmed him.

King remained in the room for three seconds more. He was confused. Keagan's input had suddenly disappeared right in front of him. No, it had morphed somehow, as if the real Keagan had traveled out of the room on the blast that smote the walls, leaving behind something that, if bio-chem information was to be trusted, could only be classified as "food".

King had no need of food. Dodging the distressed labori, he bounded from the room in search of his mistress.

S-QR peered uncertainly into the darkness around his hut. At any moment, the Rim could be breached. In front of him, in the darkness, he knew the Queen's garden lay neglected. Mechanical labori that had once tended it frozen in place, shears extended towards vines that now wrapped their bodies. Like most nights spent here, his problem-solving protocol sorted through his databanks and again came across the one unresolved issue it found there. It was the problem of intent.

S-QR knew all about intent. He knew there were two kinds of movement to be expected on the Rim. Movement without purpose, like the wind through the grass, was random, safe, ignored. Purposeful movement had an aim and a kind of order. Climbing a castle wall in order to breach the Rim, that was intentional.

For this kind of action, there were two outputs. Challenge, or attack. Challenge was easy; it activated a phrase in the voice box. Attack -- which S-QR had hoped to avoid ever using -- fired the laser on the base of his body.

Recognition of intent, S-QR reflected again, was not the problem. The fault lay in his gate-program. It was the gate-program that choreographed all the other programs. It was the one that dealt with dual input/output commands. It assigned status, multitasked, blocked inappropriate responses. Or, at least, it was supposed to.

S-QR remembered the incident thirty-five years ago. An indoor unit had been loitering near the shadow of the inner wall. Small, square, no taller than S-QR himself, but ground-dwelling. Just as he'd located it in the visual field, it had begun to trot towards him. Whether it was outside trying to get back in, or inside trying to get out, he couldn't tell. But it had violated the Rim, and so he had approached with the plan to --

Challenge! he invoked.

ATTACK! responded his gate-program.

The laser blast, though weak, was nevertheless strong enough to flip the other unit into the air. S-QR hovered, shocked, afraid to try any of his other programs and yet wondering at the status of the fallen foe. But since the unit had been flung deeper into the shadows of the inner wall, it was lost to his weak sight. S-QR had waited there nearly seven minutes, but had seen no further movement. Eventually, too worried about the Rim to stay, he rushed away to continue his patrols of the outer ward.

Since then he had numerously invoked the test procedures, only to find them corroded or perhaps incapable of the task for which they had been designed. To his horror, he was unable to determine his own procedural status.

But S-QR was a soldier, however self-promoted, and he was determined to do the best he could. He reflected again on the plan his problem-solving procedure had established. It awaited only the appropriate stimulus. Then, he would invoke the Attack program and hope the cross-wires went both ways, resulting in the Challenge execution. It was a dangerous plan, but he was aware that he had become a dangerous unit.

And that frightened him.

King had roamed the castle for twelve weeks after Keagan disappeared. He was programmed with a high mischief tolerance and abundant nuclear energy, so he was rarely bored. He roved up and down the stairs, looking for input from his mistress. He checked behind every open door and under every piece of furniture. Then he checked it all again. By that time, most of the other labori had wound down, frozen in their final acts of obeisance.

There was no sign of the King or Queen or his little mistress. Finally, he decided to go outside. This was against the direct order of his mistress, but King had decided that perhaps it was a game she was playing, and she had been waiting for him in her mother's garden since she disappeared. Testing his loyalty.

The idea tormented him.

He jogged up to the door that led to the gardens.

"Door, open!" he commanded, just as Keagan had numerous times.

The door slid open and King stepped hesitantly outside, cautiously scanning the panorama. He had never been this far without Keagan before.

He spied a round metal unit and, fixing his best grin to his face, loped towards it.

The sudden blast knocked him off his feet and flipped him high into the air. He landed on his back in the shadow of the door. Axons in his neural network popped and the wires in his back sizzled. Recovery programs began their calculations; positing and revising estimated restoration chances a hundred times each second.

Unrecoverable damage 15%. Recoverable damage 30%

Unrecoverable damage 20%. Recoverable damage 35%

Remembering Keagan's threat about playing dead forever, King lay completely still, silently regarding the massive grey wall of the castle through his own upturned legs. The stranger, denied any further input, eventually moved on.

By steadily working his right shoulder into the ground, King managed to flop onto his side. His back legs were stiff, but by using only the front ones, he slowly regained his feet.

He limped back through the open door, into the dark surrounds of the castle.

"Door. Shut."

Eighteen hours later, having climbed to the first floor to continue the search for Keagan, King of All He Surveyed discovered his inability to go back down. In the absence of a reason not to, King continued to climb the stairs, one landing every second or third day, until he reached the roof.

The sky was donning its pre-dawn grey when King made a new decision. Since he could no longer use the stairs, and since Keagan was quite obviously not on the castle's inner wall, King would go down. Straight down. Over the edge of the parapet.

Satisfied with the plan, he trotted clumsily over to the wall and eased himself upward. He looked over the edge. The base of the wall was still wreathed with shadow, but he had excellent night vision. The metal sphere was nowhere in evidence, and would not make his first appearance for -- King glanced sideways at the sky -- nearly an hour.

He hoisted his back legs up onto the wall, relying on the power in his shoulders. Balancing a moment, he deliberated again, listening to the roar of the ocean.

"Nothing to lose," he decided. "Can still be King of the Sky from down there."

Slowly, he leaned forward, tipping his nose towards the earth, pushing his toes against the stone, straightening himself out like an arrow. His front paws were on the very edge of the battlement. With little effort, he rocked forward. Then he fell into space, hurtling through the pale morning towards the ground.

It was a bright clear day when the sentinel began his rounds. As usual, he felt re-energized after a night in the hut. He skimmed out of the rose garden into the outer ward. Half-way around the Rim, he noticed an awkward silver form on the ground. S-QR paused by the unfamiliar shape. He observed for some minutes. It seemed to lack any intent whatsoever. Without a reason to stay, and worried again for the Rim he patrolled, he hesitantly moved on.

Three full circuits of the castle later, the thing stirred. As S-QR rounded the corner, he saw it half-lifting from the ground. The little sentinel remembered his plan and sped towards the shape in all haste. It was finally time. Hoping desperately for co-operation from his gate-program, he commanded,


"Who goes there!" he found himself shouting. It was the first time he'd heard his own voice in over thirty years. In his relief, he nearly sped right past the foreign shape.

"I am King of All I Survey," said the shape, moving its head with difficulty towards the voice. As the other met his video feed, S-QR thought he read recognition, then fear, in its hesitation. And the sentinel recognised the intruder, too. A figure that had stayed at the forefront of his databanks for thirty-five years.

"Should I play dead?" the figure on the ground asked, seemingly of itself. It froze, upright, staring at the sentinel implacably.

The sentinel froze, too, gingerly feeding the input/output gate in his programming.

"State your position," he shouted.

The figure continued to stare blankly.

"In the clan, state your position!" S-QR said.

"Ah! I am a laboro, an internal unit for the Princess Keagan. My name is King."

"An internal laboro?" S-QR paused. Processed. "Then you must stay inside. Do not cross the Rim!" he proclaimed.

He regretted having to send the unit away already, but order had to be maintained. King seemed to sag a little, but nodded dutifully. He rose stiffly to his feet and began with wavering steps to move towards the door.

"Not that way!" S-QR shouted. His Attack sequence was adjusting smoothly. He wondered what the Challenge sequence would invoke, but, lacking proper input, did not feel tempted to try it.

"But I'm going inside," replied King carefully.

"You are crossing the Rim. Internal labori may not pass the Rim. Besides," the sentinel was shouting, "that way is outside."

At least, he thought it was. He wasn't really sure but didn't dare ask the other, since this might compromise his authority. For three decades, it had not mattered which was inside and which was out. Only the Rim mattered.

"So where am I now?" King asked after a moment.

"You are on the Rim," S-QR informed him, "since you are beside me and I must be on the Rim. None may cross." The sentinel's voice was softening as he spoke.

"Then, how do I get inside, from the Rim?" King asked.

S-QR had no idea. He had been on the Rim so long, he wasn't sure how to get off it.

"My programming does not allow me to say," S-QR replied.

The two units regarded each other for a minute.

"So I will stay here?" asked King eventually.

Sentinel regarded the small grey shape with its face tilted up towards him, noted the tremor, not quite fully pronounced, in its tail section.

"That would be acceptable," he said, "provided you do not violate the Rim and do not go outside. No place for an indoors unit. But I must continue my rounds." He began to move away, leaving the stranger beside the wall.

That seemed to go well, he thought. From the cameras along his body, he could see King tilting his head to the right, watching him go.

"You are welcome to assist me, if you think you can keep up," Sentinel shouted.

With a grin, King began to stumble after the guard. It gave the sentinel a new kind of feeling to watch the unit totter after him. "If you think you are built for this work," he added more softly.

King looked up respectfully.

"You know, I am King of the Sky," he offered as S-QR slowed down to his pace.

Sentinel regarded the sky above him through eleven of his visual units. He was impressed.

"Then you are king of a vast empire, indeed," he said.

© Deborah Biancotti 2002, 2007.
This story was first published in Agog! (now available via Prime Books) in about 2002.

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