art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Steven Saus
Max's sensors detect them coming as they reach the museum's mummy room. Their footsteps are loud against the tiled floors, the floating echoes of Susan's seasoned patter tries to fill the vast rooms of the exhibit. Whispered voices echo, punctuated by the occasional shrill high question and quick shushing. The schedule says they are a daycare doing summer field trips. He does a quick scan of himself and loads the script into active memory. Worn gears whir softly as he shifts his thorax, the top of his frame just clearing the vaulted roof with centimeters of clearance. Max waits. Max has always been good at waiting.
"Private Ribaldo, since you're the only one of these morons who seems to remember anything from his smartbook, you're the squad leader when we're in the field." Max moaned to himself.
"Good luck," Soblenski whispered beside him, just before the drill sergeant made the squad drop and give him twenty for talking. Then he added on fifty pushups for the new squad leader for not maintaining discipline. While Max was wearing his ruck.
Max directed the squad into position, scrambling through the thick brush of the Missouri woods. The rough brambles scratched Max's skin raw, arms and legs shredded even through the heavy BDUs. The sharp smell of broken cherry branches didn't quite cut through the gun-oil scent of his M16. Max signaled the squad down at the top of a hillock where the road straightened out. He had Soblenski and Walters set up the training claymores while the rest of the squad mapped out overlapping fire zones. He put Rodgers twenty meters further off so he could get stragglers. And to keep him from talking to everybody else when he got bored.
The trees shaded Max's legs, but his Kevlar felt like a microwave. Summer mosquitoes buzzed all around them. He kept himself still. Rodgers might not have enough discipline to hold still, but Max intended to live through combat. This was no game, despite the blanks and MILES. This was training for the real thing.
Third squad rounded the corner. Jackson had his squad staggered on opposite sides of the road. Max let a grin crease his face. Jackson was doing exactly what the smartbook said to do, exactly what Max expected him to do. He remained still while they walked past. You had to get the whole group inside the ambush, and dammit if Rodgers didn't open up too early.
M16 blank casings chattered down too fast from Rodgers' weapon. The drill sergeant had ordered them all to keep the selector switch on semi. Rodgers' MILES gear was already whining from where Jackson had shot him. Max cursed and closed his eyes, listening to the MILES gear singing a chorus of his squad's defeat.
"Hello," says the little girl.
Max moves his upper appendages back in surprise, torso gyros whining hot as they keep his frame still under the shift of balance. Not the woods a hundred years ago. No ambush. The museum. Yes. His sensors scan the girl at his feet, her pink shorts and shirt proclaiming that she's someone's little angel. Max hears Susan talking to the tour group in the next room. It is a 93.7% chance that this is a child from that group who wandered ahead.
"Hello." It still takes him by surprise. After all these years, Max still expects his voice to sound more metallic. Instead, it's a perfect imitation of the just-past-teenage-squeak he had when he enlisted. The word bounces back from the other metal bodies, the motionless hulks of his old squad arranged along the edge of the room. "Aren't you supposed to be with someone?"