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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Rust

Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work appears in print in the anthologies Westward Weird (forthcoming), Mages & Magic, Timeshares and Hungry For Your Love, and in several magazines both online and off, including On Spec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and the SFWA Bulletin. He also provides publishing services and publishes books such as The Crimson Pact series of dark fantasy anthologies and Don Bingle's spy thriller Net Impact as Alliteration Ink. You can find him at stevensaus.com and alliterationink.com.
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?"
Susan moonwalks into the room mid-sentence. "...and there are some things about going to a museum that you simply can't get online." The daycare group swarms in after her. She waits for them all to clear the doorway before continuing. "One of those things is Staff Sergeant Maximilian Ribaldo, retired."
The children's eyes scan the room. They always look for an old man in fatigues, Max thinks. Sometimes the adults do too, but the daycare leaders must have read the brochures. They examine the other mechs that line the walls.
Each twenty-foot mech stands in an arch, a modern interpretation of ancient warrior bas-reliefs. The mechs shine under the soft lights, even though the quantum computer cores of the others collapsed long ago. Each shell has their unit insignia painted on the left turret. Max remembers showing off the bright red-and-white background and rearing horse when it was first sewn on his class A's.
Susan keeps an eye on the crowd milling about the metal legs. She signals him with a slight nod. She knows when the suspense is on the verge of becoming boredom. Max emits a brief burst of ultrasound to make sure his map of everyone's position in the room is accurate. He steps forward out of ranks with a metallic thud.
The thunk of the sticking arm rail vibrated Max's bed. The movement shoved pain and nausea through the morphine haze back into his body. He could not get enough air to scream.
The visitor's face blurred in the fevered waves of Max's vision. The visitor wore the same respirator hood the nurses wore. He held a plastic name badge close to Max's face, hand insulated in a latex glove. It was a military ID, but not for a branch Max had ever heard of. Max tried to raise a hand, felt it twitch before it lay still.
The visitor stood next to Max's bed. He watched Max writhe and moan. The virus ate its planned painful way through neurons, muscles spasming in disobedient agony. The man started to speak. He made the offer.
Max wanted to stand, to step forward, to ask a question. He had not been able to do any of them. He had been able to croak out "Yes."
Susan coughs. Her eyes are narrowed, and she is preparing to cough again. His internal clock notes that he has been standing still for ten full seconds.
"Good morning, citizens," Max intones. He calculates that it would be 53.1% more impressive if he could sound like the B-movie robots of his youth. He makes do with the quiver of the floor as he moves his tonnage into the middle of the room. Max sees the little girl--Alice, her nametag reads--snatched up by a worried teenaged leader. "You have seen the military history of ancient Egypt. Now I will show you the military history of what was once called the Fertile Crescent, from the past to the present. A part of history that includes me."
Susan smiles up at his chassis. Max knows his delivery is better than it has been for weeks. At least none of the children had decided that he was an oversized jungle gym today. He projects a laser sight against the Hammurabi display on the far side of the room. "Civilization began in this region with..."
"Are you just a robot?"
Max's sensor array swivels toward the boy.
"I won't talk to a robot." After that, his father had disconnected the line. He would not answer texts or voicemail, and soon Max stopped trying. His cousin Luis had sent the video of Max's memorial service his parents had insisted on having.
He watched it while on patrol. A split instance of himself watched as the digitized recording of his father extolled his military service. His mother cried in the background as his father reminisced about all the times Max had volunteered at church. They did not mention that Melissa had volunteered with him all those hours at the rectory, or that Father Tony had discovered the real reason they both volunteered.
They also did not mention the project that allowed Max to watch his own funeral.
He had just targeted and launched an array of rockets at a group of insurgents when Luis IM'd him.
"You're like all those mechs that we played with when we were kids!" Luis wrote. "How did you get lucky enough to get in that project?"
"Die horribly at the right time," Max wrote back, and fired another volley.
By the system clock, it is now thirteen seconds since the boy asked his question. Max realizes he is three steps further in the room. He launches a self-diagnostic daemon before replying.
"I legally have the same rights as any human, by judicial decree," Max says. "I am no more a program than you. You run on a single body of meat. My mind has run on this metal body for the last hundred and three years, five months, and seven days."
The boy is not listening. He is bouncing a ball of some kind; a small hologram shimmers in it. Max calculates that there is only a 25.9% chance of regaining the boy's attention. 79% of the group is still paying attention, though, so Max swivels towards them and continues.
"I was exposed to a biological agent, later labeled VKE-1189, that was released by rogue agents during the third Gulf War. It devoured neurons from the peripheral nervous system towards the central nervous system. Doctors estimated that I had two days to live when they copied my mind into this quantum computer's array. I am the last surviving member of the project."
Max pauses, then gestures his laser again at the bust of Hammurabi. "Hammurabi crafted a code of law that still inspires lawmakers today."
"Don't you get lonely, mister Max?" Alice asks. She is close, peering up at him.
"Of course not," Max says. "Emotions are caused by hormones. They copied my neurons, not my endocrine system."
"Just a stupid robot," the boy says, and he throws the ball, arcing it up, up, right at Max's central array....
Max had been attached to the regular infantry platoon for two months when the cease-fire was declared. The sun had beat down, but the men's spirits were high. They had scratched the diamond in the ground with entrenching tools. The bases were crafted of empty MRE wrappers. The children came out, first watching, then playing as the platoon played stickball. Max was designated umpire more for his ability to show an instant replay than his sensors.
The sensors were enough to notice that the pitcher, a young boy from the village, had thrown something other than a ball towards PFC Edwards, but not enough to do anything about it. The grenade's shrapnel sliced and dropped both the young soldier and the child catcher. Automatic weapons opened up from nearby houses. Max had a high-fidelity recording of the smile on the pitcher's face when it was blown off by a stray round. Max's perception of time never slowed, just recorded every detail of every second of his platoon being slaughtered in a near-perfect ambush. Max had just raised his minigun, the metal so much slower than his electric thoughts, when the LAW smashed into him from behind, turning everything into offline static.
He is online, and not on the field. The barrels of Max's minigun whine as they slowly stop spinning in front of the boy. They still move fast enough to breeze air across the boy's wide eyes, spreading the smell of his urine through the room. The super-bounce ball, thrown 1.3 seconds earlier, bounces back towards them in the silence. Max hesitates, unsure which senses are illusion, until the first person screams.
Susan dismisses the techs after the group leaves. She performs a repeat of Max's checks that night on her own. He watches her shine the spotlight inside him while she reseats cables.
"Things are more delicate than you told them," she says while examining the readouts. "You know there's no decree. They deferred the question of your personhood."
"We have worked together for five years, Susan. You know I am as much a person as you."
"The law didn't say that. It was just more convenient to just give you to us." She shuts the panel and looks up at his sensors. "It was easier to just wait until your core fails too." She pauses for a moment. "Do you read the feeds?"
Max does not reply.
"They're cutting budgetary expenses again this year. Senator Brownstreet has been trying to get you reclassified as a program."
"I am a war hero, Susan." Max's voice is even. "I am the only one of us left. They will not touch me."
Susan's fist rings off his side plating. "It doesn't matter what you are! You look like a goddamned machine!" She stops and looks at her canvas shoes. "Who you are," she says. "Who you are."
Max moves the sensor array towards her and waits for her blood pressure and heart rate to drop. "Susan, they do not want the mistakes of the project brought back into the public eye. I am a veteran. I cannot leave this body."
"Yeah, but--"
"They do not want to remind the public of their mistakes. Not with the research they started at Fort Deitrich last year."
Susan nods slightly. Then her eyes flash again, finger pointing at his minigun. "You could have hurt that boy, Max. The interference is getting worse, isn't it? Where were you this time? Iraq? Asia? Where, Max?"
Max does not answer.
Susan sighs again and leans against his leg. "Jesus, Max. We can't hide your problem much longer. What if you had fired at him?"
"I have not had rounds for my weapons systems since I was decommissioned, decades ago. You know that."
Max stands perfectly still. Susan starts to say something else, but stops. Her shoulders slump, then she finishes the checks in silence. She flicks the lights off as she leaves, then turns back toward him. Max records the shape of her silhouette in the doorway.
"Were you telling that girl the truth, Max? You never get lonely in here?"
"I do not get lonely, Susan. I will see you tomorrow."
"Goodbye, Max. See you tomorrow."
After she leaves, Max does not think of his memories of the Fertile Crescent, the jungles of South America, the steppes of Russia, or the American Midwest. Max bounces ultrasonic pings off the deactivated corpses of fellow soldiers and remembers a shadow in the doorway.
Max wonders if he lied.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012


Obviously, I drew on my memories of BASIC and my friends during my time in the military. Max is partially named in homage of one of my better friends while I was in Korea and Bethesda. (Yes, Lopez, you.) But it doesn't take a lot of scratching to see the influence of the Bolo series of books, Battletech, and my continuing fascination with the idea of uploading consciousness (and the drawbacks of doing so). But ultimately, deeply, this is a story of my deepest fears--senility and dementia. The loss of self, the loss of context, the madness of memory spliced inexplicably with the present... while you're still coherent enough to be fully aware of how far gone you are.

- Steven Saus

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