You may recall that in 2018 my friend ’Nathan did a monthly flash fiction draw. He’d assign a writing prompt with three details based on the draw of three cards: genre, setting, and object. If you wanted to participate, you wrote a flash fiction story in the chosen genre, set in the chosen place, incorporating the chosen object.
I didn’t manage to write a story every month, but you can read the ones I did write here. When I did crank out a story, it was a lot of fun—this one might have been my favorite.
So this year I am tickled that Cait Gordon is picking up the baton and doing a monthly flash fiction challenge in the same vein. The January draw was: science fiction (my favorite, as you might imagine), set in a castle (hmm, okay), and including a tea or coffee press (well, that might be tricky).
It was tricky, but I did it. Be sure to read Cait’s entry as well.
It made the tea without fail twice a day and delivered it to the commander’s office. It prepared the tray with tea press, cup and saucer, sugar, cream, and two shortbread biscuits, until the cream went sour and the biscuits ran out. After that, it brought just the tea and sugar. There was little worry that the tea would run out: the castle had enough tea to last an entire garrison for two years, and it only had to make tea for the commander.
It wasn’t programmed to worry. And there hadn’t been a garrison for a long time.
The commander’s office was at the top of the castle’s central tower, with a view over the entire plain below. There were three hundred twelve steps from the canteen level to the top. It had never spilled the tea, had never dropped the tray, not even during the bombings.
Preparing and serving tea was not its only function.
Every so often, when a ship descended from the sky and settled on the plain, where the airfield used to be, it paused in its regular duties and activated its defense protocol. This was a highly adaptive protocol with three goals: repel invaders, protect the commander, defend the castle. And it was very good at these tasks, a fact reflected in the scorched, shattered hulks of other landing vessels that littered the plain. It had disposed of the bodies with mechanical precision, before the carrion birds could descend and peck at the carcasses. It did not do this to preserve the dead’s sense of dignity. This was simply another module in the protocol.
After that, it went back to making tea.
On its 10,875th day of service, the last ship descended. It paused in its tea routine—it was mid-afternoon, and the commander would have his tea in half an hour—and prepared to activate the perimeter defense system. It scanned the vessel…
It activated another module of the protocol, one that hadn’t been accessed before. It shut down the perimeter defense and opened the front gate.
The group that entered the keep was smaller than previous attack groups, and it was only lightly armed. Most of them ignored it as they fanned out across the grounds, but one of them—female, 1.75 meters tall, blond hair—approached it directly.
“Take me to the commander,” she said.
It tried to reply, but all that came out of its vocal processor was a burst of static-filled noise. Since the commander had stopped giving it orders, it hadn’t needed to speak. The garrison was no longer there to issue commands either. It ran diagnostics, found the error; it would have to replace a part, and it didn’t have time for that now.
But it was also time for the commander’s tea. It regarded the woman standing in front of it—the downward curve of her mouth indicated impatience—and scanned her lapel rank. Lieutenant. The commander’s orders took precedence.
It returned to the canteen and finished preparing the tea. The lieutenant stood behind it, exhaling sharply—another sign of impatience. It could make the water boil faster, but it could not do anything about the time it took to properly steep the tea. Some things could not be rushed.
Nor could it rush the ascent to the commander’s chamber—at least, not too much. It could climb the stairs twelve percent faster without sloshing the tea out of the press and without exhausting the lieutenant, who breathed heavier with exertion but kept pace behind it all the way up. She had broken a sweat by the time they reached the top level, but her heart rate remained within safe limits.
After it placed the tray in front of the commander, it picked up the morning tray—tea press, cup, sugar bowl untouched as always—and made for the stairs. It passed the lieutenant, who stood staring at the commander and had not moved more than three percent from her current position since entering the room.
It stopped and executed a 180-degree turn. The lieutenant still faced the desk where the commander sat, where he’d sat for the past 10,125 days, every day, without fail, without moving. The tray rested on the desk in front of the commander, the cup of tea it had poured still steaming with heat.
“Robot, discontinue sentinel protocol.”
It waited a moment. When the commander did not contradict the order, it ended the program and cleared its storage buffers. It still held the tray and would not drop it, but would wait for someone—the lieutenant, maybe—to instruct it on what it should do with it.
“Power down,” she said.
It stood rigidly and began cycling through its shutdown procedures. The tray would remain in its grasp, even when powered down, until someone took the tray away or commanded it to put it down, or drop it. Until then, it would simply stand there.
Before its auditory receptors went offline, it heard the lieutenant say, “Good job.” Other than the commander, it and the lieutenant were the only two in the room, so it assumed her comment was directed to it.
It didn’t feel anything like pride, but it did note in its log that its sentinel protocol was performing as desired.