The Old Man

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

Inspiration: Modron

Who is he? Where is he? How did he get here? An old man wrestles with his decaying mental state and the mysteries of the strange windowless, peopleless facility in which he has been trapped for as long as he can remember.

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The old man’s alarm sounded like a sunshower, gathering strength until the trickling water turned into a waterfall. Light crept into the corners and gently illuminated the bedroom. The old man stirred and rolled over. Artificial intelligence scanned his face and measured his wakefulness.

“It is seven AM, time to get up,” a soothing but clearly artificial voice said.

“Goddamn you, I want to sleep!” the old man replied.

Light dimmed and the waterfall noise faded to a low trickle, but neither committed to vanishing completely. The old man thrashed feebly, trying to get comfortable. As always though, that sound of running water fired up his bladder. Pressure quickly escalated to a sharp, urgent pain. Grumbling, the old man rolled to the side of the bed and struggled upright.

“Do you require assistance?” the AI asked.

“No, goddamn you! Old, when did I get so old?”

Despite his insistence, the bed rose and tilted gently to help the old man to his feet. There, he stumbled from one bare foot to the other. Even though he knew that the bathroom was attached to his bedroom, and he had to get up five times a night or mess himself, suddenly he wasn’t so sure about which way he should go. Only two doorways faced him, and some kind of closet. The room was soft and white, uncluttered and uncomplicated, but a fog of indecision bogged him down. Thankfully, one of the doors slid open and a gentle glow coaxed him in the right direction.

The old man staggered to the bathroom, shedding his pyjamas. Behind the bed, a hatch opened and two waist-tall droids emerged. Shaped like cones with bluntly tipped heads, moving on inflatable skirts, they rounded the bed. One immediately went about sanitising and tidying the old man’s sheets and blanket. The other hurried to collect the old man’s discarded clothing.

The bathroom light adjusted as the old man entered. He made it to the toilet and relieved himself. The lid closed and the toilet flushed automatically when he was done. The old man, now naked, staggered to the sink and washed his hands under the automatic tap. In the mirror, his body was soft and sagging, hunched, pale, and covered in thin, white hair, like some creature evolved for life underground. Heavy lines disfigured a once-handsome face. Old, so old, had he ever really been young?

“Time for personal grooming, please hold still,” the artificial voice said.

The old man understood routine at least, and he leaned into the sink. Green letters flashed ‘HOLD STILL’ inside the mirror. Lines of light first painted his features and then fired in quick, intense bursts. Any stubble he’d grown yesterday and overnight was lasered mercilessly off his face. Light danced in and out of the cracks and crevasses of his wrinkles. A whiff of burning hair filled the air. The old man felt a few flashes of heat on his cheeks and chin, nothing more.

“Time to shower.”

The shower cubicle behind the old man started to hiss. Recycled water automatically adjusted itself to the perfect temperature. Docile, the old man waddled into the shower and let the water pelt him clean. The AI warned him to close his eyes. Nozzles sprayed him with shampoo and soap which the shower quickly washed away. The water shut off and the cubicle buffeted him with warm air until his saggy body was dry.

The old man returned to the bedroom where his bed was made and his clothing had been collected. Mechanical arms dressed him in front of the mirrored closet. Soft, white pants and a long-sleeved top, not unlike pyjamas, and a thin dressing gown. The bedroom, all the rooms, were kept warm and dry and sterile so he didn’t need too much clothing. His feet slid into white slippers laid at his feet. The facility’s logo was on the toes of both slippers and on the breast of his gown, they put it everywhere. Some kind of bird. The mechanical arms retreated. Did he once have people to help him with this instead of machines? It had been so long since he’d seen another person, he couldn’t remember.

The second doorway opened and another soft light coaxed the old man into the hallway. Waiting for him was an extension of the facility’s central artificial intelligence known as Caretaker. All the droids were extensions of the AI but Caretaker maintained an illusion of greater independence and sophistication than the simple droids relegated to largely individualised tasks. Caretaker hung from a mechanical arm which moved on ceiling tracks running along the corridors and in and out of all rooms in the facility. Caretaker itself resembled a padded torso with arms that each ended in three thick fingers. A screen inset in the middle of the droid’s chest showed a simple, glowing face.

“Good morning, sir. It is time for breakfast, please follow me.” Caretaker spoke in the same voice as the bodiless AI in the old man’s bedroom.

The layout of the facility seemed simple, although an inordinate number of rooms branched off the featureless central corridor. Without Caretaker and the AI, however, the old man would have quickly gotten lost, even though he’d taken the same route every single day in his living memory. Caretaker led him to the dining room. A table, much too big for only him, surrounded by a dozen chairs. More birds were inset on the backs of the chairs. Caretaker directed the old man to the head of the table. The room was just as sterile and featureless as the hallway but one wall slowly came to life and turned into a false window. It appeared to overlook a peaceful avenue in a wealthy neighbourhood, lined with autumnal trees. One of the facility’s cone-shaped droids entered, balancing a tray in its stubby but telescoping arms.

“Breakfast.” Caretaker hung over the centre of the table.

The tray consisted of a black coffee and a plastic cup filled with water, plus a smaller cup holding vitamins and pills. A plate with a square of pale pink, bready substance, and a spoon.

“What is this, goddamn you?” the old man said.

“Loaf contains all of your nutritional needs, along with your daily vitamins,” Caretaker said.

“I want a goddamn steak! A goddamn steak and eggs!”

Caretaker paused for a moment. “Steak, is not available at current,” it said, copying the old man’s cadence as if not entirely sure what ‘Steak’ was. “We have some powdered eggs and bacon substitute if you would like to put in a request for tomorrow’s breakfast? You need to eat to maintain an ideal level of health. Do you require assistance?”

Desultorily, the old man swallowed the pills and the water. The loaf, cutting apart with the edge of the spoon, peeled and curdled like a rind of fat. He ate it anyway for a lack of anything better to do. The only part of the breakfast the old man savoured was the cup of coffee, although even it tasted weak and bitter and terribly stale.

“Eight AM, time for news and new business. News, there is no news. New business, there is no new business.” Caretaker’s screen displayed a blank checklist. “Time for exercise.”

“I don’t want no goddamn exercise!”

“It is time for exercise, do you require assistance?”

High tech apparatuses filled the exercise room, most of them completely unused. Much of the equipment would be too high impact for the old man. Like everything else in the facility though, it remained spotless and in perfect repair. Caretaker steered the old man to an omnidirectional treadmill, a circular pad where he was free to wander in any direction he pleased. The pad moved slowly and steadily, sensing which way he was facing. Next to him, the wall lit up into another false window that looked over a slowly shifting forest filled with green life and dappled sunlight.

“Time for your vitamin D therapy.” Caretaker hovered beside the treadmill as the old man slowed to a stop.

In the same room as the exercise equipment were several pods, open on both sides, with reclining seats and special lighting inside. The old man almost lost his way but Caretaker gently guided him to the nearest pod. Grunting, he settled into the chair. A screen closed over his eyes and blue light filled the pod, bathing him from head to toes and gently warming his skin. The old man was vaguely aware the light imitated the effect of sunlight. How long had it been since he’d seen the sun? He couldn’t remember, any memories of that time felt half-unreal. He couldn’t remember the sun in any meaningful way, just like he couldn’t remember his last memories with other people.

The old man dozed. He was only woken when the pod shut off. Caretaker hung beside him, screen showing another blank schedule.

“Twelve PM, time for news and new business. News, there is no news. New business, there is no new business. Time for lunch.”

The old man didn’t resist as he was shuffled back to the dining room. Lunch was a thin stew and more water. When he was done, Caretaker escorted the old man to the entertainment area for recreation. The entertainment area had more character than most of the sterile rooms throughout the facility. One corner was designed to look like a sitting room, with antique but comfortable chairs and low tables. Leatherbound books lined one wall. Another false window looked out over a pasture and small lake. The old man could read or listen to books, listen to music, or watch movies. Electronic equipment filled the rest of the space, game tables, and an artificial driving range surrounded by netting.

Settling into one of the chairs, the old man sat and stared. Caretaker hung beside him from the rail system like a patient butler. Every once in a while the old man roused enough to think he should at least attempt a book or a movie or a game, or even just tell Caretaker to put some music on. But he couldn’t hold onto the momentum of each thought and lapsed back into sitting in silence instead.

Dinner was a darker, denser, meatier variation on loaf, some squidgy vegetables, and more vitamins. Then, more recreation time. The artificial windows did nothing to indicate the passage of time. Nothing did. There were no real windows, no clocks, no variations in lighting, anywhere in the facility. Eventually, the Caretaker automaton suggested heavily that the old man go to bed and escorted him to his room.

01010000 01001111 01010100 01010101 01010011

The old man’s alarm woke him from a nightmare. He often had nightmares, the same one over and over again. People yelling and shoving him, everyone frightened and panicked. He was stuffed into a tight space, like a coffin, and felt himself dropping. Dropping into darkness, dropping into a grave. Into Hell. It felt more like a memory than something he’d imagined but he couldn’t make any sense of it.

The facility, with its AI and its drones, operated like clockwork. The old man was a speck of dirt caught in its gears, shuttled back and forth as it went about its business. From bed to bathroom, to the dining hall to the exercise room, with gently applied force. His memories of yesterday were vague and they bled into memories of every other single day. Dim and fuzzy with confusion.

Breakfast came with the same cup of weak coffee, water, and pills. But the plate had a grey-yellow scramble of rehydrated eggs made from powder and some red rectangles of artificial bacon. The old man prodded at it with his cutlery.

“What is this?”

“Bacon and eggs, as requested yesterday,” Caretaker said. “Do you require assistance?”

The break in routine disturbed the old man for reasons he couldn’t articulate. He kept poking at the food as if he didn’t know what else to do with it. After he finished the coffee, he shoved the rest back at one of the serving droids.

“Eight AM, time for news and new business. News, there is no news. New business, there is no new business,” Caretaker said. “Time for exercise.”

“No, no, goddamn it, you can’t order me around!” the old man said.

“It is time for exercise, do you require assistance?”

“No, no, I want my son! I have a son, I want to see him!” The old man grew agitated.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the query.”

“I used to be someone, someone important! I give the orders, not you! You don’t give me orders! I want to-, I want to talk to a person! Who’s in charge here? I want to talk to my son!”

Caretaker paused as if processing. “If you would like to make a call, please state your name and the name of the person you wish to contact.”

“I-, I-,” the old man looked wide-eyed and scared. “I want to talk to my son.”

“If you would like to make a call, please state your name and the name of the person you wish to contact.”

“I-, I don’t remember, I don’t know.”

The old man couldn’t remember his own name, or the name of his son. He couldn’t remember his face. His only memory was of a vague shape wearing a uniform of some kind, a soldier’s uniform. Details stood out in his mind but nothing coalesced into a complete picture.

Caretaker coaxed the old man out of his chair and down the hallway to the exercise room. He did his time on the omnidirectional treadmill but his mind was in tumult. He started turning, wandering, and eventually wandered off. He crossed the room back toward the exit.

“It is time for your vitamin D therapy.” Caretaker followed. “Do you require assistance?”

Without lights or signs to guide him, the hallways and doors all looked the same. Nothing was technically barred to the old man, the rooms slid open at the touch of a hand. The old man found offices, and bedrooms similar to his own but smaller, featureless and untouched, storage areas, and another entertainment area. He couldn’t find anything that looked like an exit, or a window, or an outside. He didn’t really know what he was looking for, only that he was meant to be searching.

“Where is he? I know he’s in here, where is my son?” the old man raved. “Where are you keeping him?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the query. Do you require assistance?”

Eventually, the old man collapsed and shuddered himself into a half-sleep. Caretaker’s clumsy hands collected him carefully. The mechanical arm and rail system was strong enough to carry the old man back to his bedroom. The droid stripped off his dressing gown and put him to bed.

01010000 01001111 01010100 01010101 01010011

The old man had good days and bad, relatively speaking. Good days, he remembered enough to know that he’d been someone important once and that was why he’d been put here, in this place. Maybe to protect him. Maybe to imprison. He couldn’t remember who that other version of himself was or why he’d been here so long, however. He knew he’d had a family, friends, colleagues, and if he strained he could almost remember their faces. Good days, he could take some pleasure in eating, or moving on the treadmill, or in music, although movies and books were still too difficult to follow. But good days, he knew enough of what was going on with his mind to live in terror of the bad. Live in terror that one day he wouldn’t come back from the bad, and there would only be confusion and fear from that point on.

The day after, or the day after, or the day after, the old man roamed the halls and screamed. He didn’t know what he was looking for, or the words to cry out, so he just screamed. Everything felt like static. Sometimes he was a child, or a younger version of himself who’d gotten turned around for a moment, or he was just an animal reacting on instinct. Caretaker followed, occasionally interjecting with suggestions of assistance. At some points, the old man considered Caretaker to be furniture and ignored it completely. At other times, he regarded Caretaker and the other droids with paralysing horror. Nightmares and waking life blended as he fell asleep where he fell. Nightmares of being shoved and trapped and of falling, alone, all alone.

Shit crusted the old man’s hands, having wiped streaks of it onto the white walls in mindless defiance. He’d splattered food across the dining hall. Barefoot, the old man found himself wandering half-naked and dishevelled, unshaven. Moving in and out of rooms where he’d upset and destroyed what he could, although there wasn’t a lot he could actually damage. His fury exhausted him.

Cleaning droids emerged, suctioned to the walls like starfish. They purred over the streaks of shit and splattered food left by the old man, leaving sanitised tracks behind them. Worker droids rearranged the furnishings the old man had upturned.

“Where? Where am I? What is this place?” The old man struggled upright, eyes rheumy and red.

“You should shower and rest. Do you require assistance?” Caretaker offered its three-fingered hands.

“Help me, please, help me.”

Caretaker half-steered, half-carried the old man back to his bedroom and gently stripped off his soiled clothing. Still confused and frightened, the old man took some prodding before he would enter the shower. Water and soap baptised and cleansed him. Warm air blew him dry.

“I don’t understand, where is everyone? Why won’t anyone help me? I was someone-, I was someone once.”

Caretaker hung a fresh dressing gown around the old man’s naked shoulders. One of the worker droids brought a tray of food to the old man’s bedroom. Loaf, with a cup of water and vitamins. The old man pulled it apart with his fingers, forgetting what his hands had been covered in only recently, and ate. Eventually, he curled up on the bed, shaking and crying until he passed out.

01010000 01001111 01010100 01010101 01010011

Nightmares chased the old man out of sleep a few hours later. Nightmares where he was surrounded by scared, shoving people. Pushed into a metal coffin, he felt his stomach lurch as he dropped into darkness. His mind felt clearer, as if he’d excised the worst of the delirium from his system for the moment. An itch at the back of his mind, something from his memories, wouldn’t let him sleep. The old man went to the bathroom and then dressed himself without the help of the mechanical arms, only struggling with some of the buttons. He slid his feet into a couple of slippers complete with pictures on the toes.

“Your medical readings indicate you would benefit from more rest,” the AI said softly.

“I saw something, didn’t I? Yesterday, goddamn you, or whenever it was,” the old man said. “I saw something, I know it. Something about this place.”

Caretaker waited for him in the corridor. “Do you require assistance?”

“Take me-, take me there.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the query.”

“I’ll find it! I’ll find it myself, goddamn you!”

The old man traced one hand against the wall. All the surfaces he’d defaced had been cleaned and sanitised while he slept, all the furnishings set right. Caretaker followed but everything else remained silent. The old man couldn’t remember what he was looking for but his mind felt clearer. He knew he had a purpose and wasn’t just wandering aimlessly again. Maybe it was an exit. Maybe an answer as to how he got there in the first place. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he found a way out. He couldn’t really remember anywhere else but this strange, windowless, exitless, timeless place, even if the false windows reminded him of what an outside world should look like.

Moving between rooms, the old man discovered offices, bedrooms, storage, all over again. He knew at a glance that none of them were what he was looking for. He stumbled onward, letting doors slide closed behind him. Caretaker hovered at his back.

“Is there anything I can help you find?” Caretaker asked. “Do you require assistance?”

The old man ignored the AI and turned down a long corridor. He couldn’t hold a mental map of the facility together in his head but he was pretty sure the hallway and its rooms extended far beyond the central rooms where he usually remained. Tired and sore, he lurched toward the door he saw at the very end of the corridor.

The old man placed his hand against the door, expecting resistance, but it slid open for him like all the others. Lights flared to life inside the room. The old man looked around in confusion. The nearer half of the room was cluttered with all kinds of equipment. A couple of tall, black, narrow objects with shiny eyes attached to rows of panels and computers. At first glance, the old man thought they were some kind of droid he hadn’t seen before. He then realised they were cameras. Everything was spotless despite not being used in years.

Across the other side of the room was a desk and chair, and a row of perfectly curled American flags. Behind the flags bloomed a massive logo, a seal, the same one the old man saw on his clothing and furniture and all around the facility. A bird, an eagle, on a blue background with a shield, an olive branch in one claw and a bushel of arrows in the other. Around the eagle were the words ‘SEAL OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES’.

The old man wandered to the desk, touching it as if he wasn’t sure it was really there. This wasn’t a real office, just a set designed to look like one for the cameras. Designed to project stability and continuation. The old man still hadn’t quite absorbed and put it all together. He looked around and saw a panel with a flashing green light. It almost seemed placed where it was to beckon to him. Baited, he wandered over and tapped it. Caretaker hung in the room’s entry.

A hologram flickered to life above the panel, cast from several wire-thin projectors. It showed the desk, the flags, and a man sitting between them. It took the old man several moments to recognise him but when he did he did a double take. It was him, sitting beneath the seal of the US presidency. Not young, but at least twenty years younger than he was now. Face fleshy but still handsome with more colour in his hair and a fitted suit.

“My fellow Americans, by now you are aware of the-, great conflagration, faced by us all. If you are able to do so, please seek shelter without delay,” the recording said. “If not, know that you are not alone. That we are all praying for you in what comes next.”

The recording of the old man’s younger self went on to lay out the situation for those unaware, and for some sense of historical posterity. The bombs were already falling, chances for survival were minimal. All major population centres would be incinerated. Fallout would wipe out those lingering on. Clouds would blot out the sun for decades and radiation would poison much of the country for centuries if not millenia. If it was to be any comfort, America would not be dying alone. Their enemies would soon be going the same way.

Out of the fog of the old man’s mind, he remembered. His nightmares weren’t just nightmares, they were memories of that fateful day. When they’d heard what was about to happen, his Secret Service had bundled him through the White House to the escape pod. The metal coffin dropped deep into the bowels of the earth, sealing its route behind it. The facility was a top of the line bunker where the President, his family, and staff, could survive for decades. Except no one had followed him. There hadn’t been time, none of them made it to the other entrances. None of them survived. No one who knew where he was or how to get to him. Maybe no one at all survived, maybe he was truly all alone.

The version of the old man in the hologram looked shaken. He’d recorded the message right here in this room, twenty years ago, immediately after being dropped down the escape route. He stumbled over his words in a few places, either due to distress or due to the first seeds of dementia that would gradually consume his mind.

“I remind you that this great nation was forged in a crucible of fire. From ashes, we will emerge again,” the old man’s younger self said. “God be with you, and God bless America.”

“I’m alone, I’m-, I’m all alone,” the old man said.

The holo recording faded and shut off. Stumbling back against the polished desk, with the seal of the presidency, his presidency, behind him, the old man sank awkwardly to the carpet. Whirring forward, Caretaker loomed.

“Do you require assistance?”

01010000 01001111 01010100 01010101 01010011

The President of the United States’ alarm sounded like a sunshower, gathering strength until the trickling water turned into a waterfall. Light swelled in the corners of the room. He stirred and rolled over, disturbed from a nightmare in which panicked people grabbed and shoved him into a metal coffin. A nightmare where he dropped away into blackness forever and ever. It felt more like a memory than a nightmare but quickly faded.

“It is seven AM, time to get up.”

The old man wanted to sleep but his bladder insisted that he rise. A wave of sadness struck him but he didn’t know why. The morning was like any other he could remember, for as far back as he could remember. Stripping off his pyjamas, he stumbled to the bathroom to start another day.

======

Sean: First and foremost I would like to insist that this story is most definitely not a commentary on any current or former US presidents, in spite of what some quarters I’m sure would like to read into it. It was almost certainly inspired in part, however, by the story that later in his life former President Ronald Reagan would spend hours raking the leaves from his pool – not realising his Secret Service agents were replacing them at the other end just to give him something to do.

That image of the droids working together like an implacable clockwork machine was really what I’d been picturing for the Modrons for some time, but I didn’t have a story idea that fit. Once the idea for the bunker came to me, the actual story came together really rapidly.

We’re into the final month of 2022, which means the final month of All There in the (Monster) Manual! On the one hand, this year feels like it has gone by really quickly. But on the other, some of the first stories I wrote for this challenge feel like they were written a long, long time ago. I hope you have some time on your hands coming into Christmas because I have three very long stories, and then one very short one, to see out the year. I didn’t plan it like that, I don’t really plan anything, but that’s the way it’s worked out. Next week, if you’ve been following them at all, will be the last story set in the ‘Land of Giants’ setting for this year.

Next Week’s Inspiration: Giant Centipede

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