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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

The Veterans

Updated: Jun 30

Roderick climbed the dilapidated metal steps and peered into the Mouth. He unlatched his side chamber—now held tight by recycled shoestrings—and delivered handfuls of rich brown earth into the Mouth, careful not to drop any worms. The fuel plopped, a dull echo rising pitifully from the near-empty mammoth.

“Worth your weight?” a voice crackled from below.

“Never seems to be,” he answered, careful not to knock against the Starter Reserve as he dismounted the rusted wagon that kept the Mouth mobile. “You busy?”

“Always,” Roman said, tapping his chest. “Keeping time.” He watched Roderick with scratched lenses; it was a miracle he could see a meter away. 

“No excuse not to gather some fuel,” Roderick whispered bitterly.

Roman creased his good eyebrow. “If you have something to say, speak up! Don’t whisper like we’re kissin’.”

“Saving energy.”

“Then better off not talking at all.”

Roderick didn’t respond. The few surviving men had been together so long that squabbling came naturally. The sudden ache of fatigue rocked his chest and he slumped over. His body was telling him to relax... to eat.

Roman sighed. “You sit out. Your quota is running over from yesterday. Once the others get back, we can pump the Mouth.”

“Can’t hibernate yet,” Roderick buzzed. “Good worm nest. Might escape.”

“And risk shutdown?” Roman gently placed his palms on Roderick’s shoulders, their skin plinking at the touch—an unwelcome reminder of how hideous they had become once their plastiderm exteriors had finally deteriorated. “We won’t have enough to restart you in time, Rod.”

Roderick managed to lift his head. The Starter Reserve pulsed slowly from the Mouth’s wagon. It shivered slightly, the mounts clawing desperately at the side panel despite the corrosion. The casing of the Reserve itself was a newer addition from Deuter, a necessary “upgrade” to prevent further leaks.

The thought of Deuter’s shutdown still made Roderick’s head weary with grief, but at least he was put to good use. The Mouth needed all of the functional parts it could get.

Roderick slumped to the muddy cavern floor.

“Good,” Roman said with a hard smirk. “If those worms aren’t too far...”

“112 meters south,” Roderick instructed, trying his best to ignore the internal alarm. He gave Roman the best directions he could, then unlatched his hand from his wrist. It had taken him years to pound and carve the metal of his fingers into the right tools for digging up worms. His thumb pad doubled as both a miniature scoop and a grooved grip—that was the key. He could switch from digging to grabbing without much movement. It would help Roman clear the nest quickly if he could use it right. “Don’t... screw it up,” he managed before hibernation consumed him.

Pale visions flickered in Roderick’s head. Normally he had no consciousness when he rested, but sometimes... sometimes it was terrible. Pain rocked his chest and skull. There was nothing he could do. He saw friends die, some killed by each other, some taken by his own hands. Even scarier was the small part of himself that missed it.

He was jostled awake by the familiar humming of the Mouth.

“Fancy that,” Caraway said. “Gets up just in time ta smell food.”

“Never much understood that word,” Mert mused, always quick to be philosophical. He propped his makeshift leg between two rocks to give himself balance, then helped Roderick to his feet. “Smell? Deuter said it’s a Maker’s sense, but I still don’t see what use it is. I never needed to smell.”

“Because you’re not worth the effort,” Caraway said with a gruff tone.

Roderick yawned, checking his functions. His energy stores were only marginally better. Without some fresh energy, his system would encourage hibernation again. There was a lingering ache in his back-mounted rifle. He hated the thing, yet could never be completely rid of it. Something told him he needed it... Was it fear? Comfort? The others had disabled their weapons, but Roderick never could. It was part of him.

“Roman get those worms?” Roderick asked. He rubbed at his knobby wrist. His hand had been reattached, at least.

Caraway nodded. “Quite a bit of ‘em. Should have us up for another few days.”

“You can all thank me later,” Roman yelled from behind the rumbling wagon. He increased his volume so he could be heard through the deep echo off the cavern walls. “Come and get it!”

Mert helped Roderick to the back of the wagon where the Mouth deposited the energy. Roman jabbed the injector into Roderick’s port with rough hands. Warmth pumped into him. His arms grew stronger, his legs more capable, his mind clearer. Even though breathing was a cosmetic function, he complied with the urge to take a deep breath through his nose and exhale through his mouth.

“Step aside,” Caraway said, plucking the injector out. “The way you bat your eyes makes this look obscene.”

They each took their fill of the energy. Not much, but enough to keep going.

Caraway twisted open the run-off spigot and filled four canteens with excess liquid. They each settled, forming a semi-circle near the dim light of the Starter Reserve.

“To Deuter,” Roman proposed. He held his canteen to the wagon and took a long drink. “Whew! This one has a kick!”

The other three followed his lead and each took a swig.

“Damn,” Roderick said, holding back a grimace. “Too much worm, I think.”

“Lots of energy in animal organisms,” Mert said. “Good haul today.”

They clinked canteens together and drank in silence for some time. Caraway pulled out a collection of assorted metal scraps and they kept their minds occupied with games of chance, devised hundreds of years ago.


************


Unchecked, Roderick could hibernate for weeks and think it had been hours. Old age did that. It got easier and easier to slump against a wall and lose the will to stand up again.

Roman was the last Timekeeper. Only he could accurately gauge minutes, hours, and even solar days. None of the remaining men even knew what constituted a “solar day.” Their own internal clocks had begun to falter long ago. 

There was a heavy knock on Roderick’s metal skull. He woke suddenly. 

Roman was hunched against the wagon, tossing rocks at the men in turn. “Morning,” he said with a grumpy sneer. “Not good, but morning all the same.”

The men stretched, their joints creaking noisily, and went their separate ways.

The dim tunnels took time to navigate. They had been dug out over a period 

some calculated to be around twelve-hundred years. But, as energy supplies became more scarce and men continued to shut down, digging further became inefficient. The best that could be done was to slowly pick at loose walls, carefully collecting organic energy in the form of fertile soil, organic dirt-dwellers, or strange Maker relics.

After a period of determined hobbling, Roderick found the hole of worms he had discovered the day before. It was empty now, cleared out by Roman. His fingers dug through the slick walls: packed pockets of clay and composted remnants. It was said that when the colony had first become sentient—when brothers no longer fought brothers—much of the tunnels were lined with clothes and shoes and wrappers and bags.

“These are what the Makers enjoy,” Deuter had told the others. He palmed a rubber toy modeled after an unrecognizable creature—although they each knew somehow it was called a terrier. “It’s hope. Once the Makers reckon where they hid us, they’ll be back. They’ll join us in the tunnels, an’ tell us our true belonging among ‘em, an’ listen to our stories fer a millennium. They’ll want to see how much we’ve changed. Trust me—I seen ‘em when I was a new-life.”

Roderick’s thumb-scoop scratched against something solid. He dug around, quickly unearthing the object. He rotated the tin cylinder in front of his face. It was still sealed. He unwound his side and jammed the can into his hip bone.

He gathered five more further in. His body creaked with the effort, the strain on his bad shoulder crunching whenever he reached deep into the hole. Luckily, the digging became easier in the higher tunnels, and he didn’t have to exert himself as much. It was warmer as well.

A loud blast of sound came from back toward the Mouth. Then another. The call reverberated through the tunnels, striking against empty caverns and echoing back against itself.

Roderick knew the call. He ran.

Unsure which passage held the source of the sound, he relied on his internal navigation to lead him along the shortest path to the Mouth. Left, then right, ducking beneath beams of oxidized iron and squeezing between structures that never made sense yet had names in his head.

As he followed a jagged bend, two figures came into view. Caraway leaned over a fallen Roman. Roman’s arms were splayed to the sides, one of his legs tucked beneath his back. His head rested in the pit of his arm. He wasn’t moving.

“His clock stopped,” Caraway said, his hand resting on the crank of a manual alarm.

Roderick trotted to a stop. “How long?”

“No telling. Not long, I figure.”

“He was fine this morning.”

“Old,” Caraway mumbled. “Sometimes you just can’t take it no more, no matter how much you think you got left in you...”

“We can revive him,” Roderick said. He stared at the body. An impulse inside wanted him to gag, but he didn’t know how. His face was emotionless. “I’m getting the Starter Reserve.”

“It’s too risky!” Caraway belted. “Too much ta lose, even if you make it in time.”

Roderick didn’t care. Roman was their brother, and they had seen too much death as it was. They needed each other more than they needed the Reserve.

The walls rushed passed him. He was no longer in control. His instincts took over, and he jumped and ducked his way through the darkness like a man a hundred years younger. 

He reached the wagon and carefully began unscrewing the Starter Reserve. “Sorry, Deuter,” he whispered, dropping bits of his former comrade’s skull to the mud. His fingers were shaking; he cursed at himself. The mounts fell free in a red-brown puff of rust. Then he unscrewed the cable and attached the injector.

Running back was harder. His body wasn’t used to the movements. But he let his internal programming guide him, hopping from spot to spot with the glowing Reserve tucked beneath his arm. He had no concern for his own welfare where a dying brother was concerned.

Caraway was in the same spot. He looked back at Roderick with a stony glare.

“Ten minutes yet?” Roderick asked, handing him the Reserve.

“No way ta know,” he said.

Caraway hastily placed the injector into Roman’s chest. They both knew the risks—Caraway especially. He was Roderick’s elder; sentient for three hundred years before Roderick’s most recent restart. As foolish as this was, not even a hardened man like Caraway could place the practical dangers ahead of a comrade’s life.

If Roman was still alive in there, they had to save him.

Roman’s body jerked with the sudden flood of energy. Nothing. It jerked again. The Reserve emptied to a dark shell, then clattered away with Roman’s final spasm. 

Caraway and Roderick stepped back and watched, preparing themselves... hoping. They didn’t speak.

Roman’s eyes flashed, his muscles bending and flexing in turn. Then he stood and faced them. His broken eyebrow twitched over and over. His eyes were dead.

“Initialization complete,” it said in too loud a voice. “Identify yourselves or prepare to surrender to the Lauden Armada.”

Caraway shook his head slowly. He patted Roderick’s shoulder and turned his back, slumping slowly away. 

“This is your final warning,” it said, stepping forward aggressively. An empty armature sprung over its shoulder, pointed at Caraway.

Roderick’s instincts acted out. His own back-mounted rifle coiled forward and shot the unarmed Roman in the exposed portion of his neck. Sparks sputtered, arms flew. It was unreal.

The body collapsed like another piece of garbage, its metal chin jutting toward the imageless ceiling. 

Roderick’s insides told him he ought to cry, but he had no idea what that meant anymore. Maybe he never had.


************


The three men sat in a triangle sipping run-off. The run-off didn’t contain much in the way of usable energy, but it was a small pleasure. There was a tone of sweetness in this batch—a compliment from the brown sludge extracted from Roderick’s salvaged cans.

With their Starter Reserve exhausted, getting enough energy for ignition was a problem. They had emptied the remaining energy from Roman’s body into Roderick, then attached Roderick to the side of the Mouth. His own body was forced into shut down, but as the Mouth whirled the bits around in its many teeth, he was immediately resuscitated; its priority was to refill the Starter Reserve—or Roderick—for later use.

His mind fogged. He wasn’t sure if it was his near-death experience as a Starter, or the loss of Roman. Should he feel guilt? Was killing a new-life the right thing to do?

Many had left before. This was no different.

“We no longer have a Timekeeper,” Mert said, breaking the silence. He gently stroked his new leg—Roman’s leg. “Does that mean we no longer have ‘time’?”

“Men can only be so lucky,” Caraway said with a scowl. “Good riddance.”

“We’ll have to hibernate in shifts now,” Roderick offered, “or risk long periods of inaction.”

Caraway grunted. “Not like my body can git much dustier.”

Silence.

“Can you believe that bastard?” Mert took another swallow. “Just ducking out on us like a coward? Pssht.”

“Never could take it,” Caraway said with his first smile in what seemed like weeks. “I remember when his body got restarted, oh, four hundred years ago. Took him twice as long ta grow inta sentience than most. Tell me he had an accurate timer all day if you like, but I think it was broken ta shit from the start. His whole head was.”

They all laughed at that. 

“Or how about when he won that spade off of old Dockson?” Roderick recalled cheerily. “Took him two months to outwit the old codger in a game of dice ranks, and he nearly lost everything. Takes that spade,” he mimicked holding the small shovel in his hand, “inspected it real nice, then stuck it straight into a sheet of scrap and busted the damned handle!”

Mert spit out a mouthful of run-off and laughed so hard he had to hold his side chambers shut. They spent the next few hours reminiscing about old friends and the humorous mistakes they made fresh into life.

“I wonder,” Mert sighed. He didn’t look up from his canteen. “I... I bet Roman’s off in a better place now.”

“Grow some steel,” Caraway said, suddenly turning sour again. “This is our punishment. We messed up and were tossed down here ta teach us a thing or two or three. Make us regret, is all.”

“The Maker’s would never do that,” Roderick heard himself say.

“Ha!” Caraway’s laugh was loud enough to shock them both. “Yeah? Listened ta Deuter too much. Makers are the worst kind of fiction—the kind you want ta believe.”

“He was the oldest,” Mert countered. “They say he was the only man who never had to be restarted. He was born in the beginning. He saw them once, before he grew into awareness.”

“He had enough screws loose ta fix a tractor,” Caraway said. “Even if he was as old as he said, it didn’t help him none. That decrepit fool barely remembered his own name at times.”

“Up,” Mert continued stubbornly. “He said that’s where the Makers live—in a tunnel with no ceiling and an orb of energy so powerful it can keep men alive simply by shining on them from above. And the organisms are so—”

“Enough,” Caraway snarled. “Just... enough. Both of you.” He wrapped his arms tight around his chest.

“What if he was right, Caraway?” Roderick stared at the dark ceiling, imagining what it could be like for there to be no more earth above him. It was hard to envision, but part of him thought it might already have words for it. “We’ve moved the Mouth to higher tunnels because the dirt and debris is easier to move, and the fuel is more abundant as well. What if it’s a sign to keep digging?”

Caraway sighed. “We’re too old ta keep dreaming like new-life. And I’m too tired. Too, too tired...” He relaxed into hibernation, his back easing down onto the ground.

“Must’ve been tough,” Mert said to Roderick, “having to let loose that bullet. It was the right call.”

Roderick nodded slightly. It should have been tough. But killing was its own thing, somehow. In time, the new-life in Roman’s body would have matured and overcome its instinct to destroy—if only day by day. But they didn’t have the resources. Roman would have wanted it this way, his body put to better uses.

“We’re the ones with the bad tickers...”


************


They worked in shifts, only being awake at the same time when they needed to pump from the Mouth. How many days had passed...? It was impossible to tell. They didn’t talk much, but they didn’t need to. Everything that could be said had been said.

Still, how high up they could go? Makers or not, the higher they went, the better fuel they could find. The only issue was moving the wagon. In their youth they had each been strong enough to lift boulders and lob them across chasms. Now, their energy was spread too thin, and their bodies were falling apart. Roderick himself hadn’t had more than 9% energy since a lucky oil drum find ten years back.

But they kept on moving and gathering, gathering and eating. Many unmeasured days later, Caraway passed.

Roderick had barely gathered enough nutrition when the urge to hibernate consumed him. It was getting harder to collect food with just the three of them. The walks were longer, the payoff so little. He went to awaken Caraway to take his shift, but Caraway was gone—his body an empty shell with that stoic expression held tight on his chin.

“I can’t go down like that,” Mert said stubbornly. They were both awake now, stalking the corridors with little motivation. “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I need to go down doing something important. One last fight.”

Roderick held a double-injector cable in his hands. They had used it on Caraway, a heartless attempt to feed themselves. The cable was heavy in his hands, disgusting. Repulsive. His guts hurt.

Neither of them wanted to admit this was the final stretch for both of them. That there would be no fight.

Mert’s knee popped with every slanted shuffle. “Who knows what we’ll find up ahead?”

“Food,” Roderick muttered, “I hope.”

“More than that, I’d just like someone to listen.” Mert’s voice trickled out like drops of water. “I don’t think the Makers—or whatever is out there—meant for all this. I think they just lost their map... forgot they were looking. If we can just speak to them for a bit, get them to see how different we are... I think I’ll be happy.”

“I have to lie down,” Roderick said. “I-I’m...”

Mert smiled dreamily, helping Roderick to sit beside a mound of shredded rubber. “Just relax, old friend. You get some rest. I can handle it from here.”

Roderick tried to smile back at Mert, but hibernation overwhelmed him.

His head, running on low energy, had visions. Nightmares. He recalled vaguely the years he spent fighting his brothers, searching for ways to hunt them down and kill them. It was no proper way to be, yet it was how he was—all he knew. He couldn’t help it, but there was no solace in being a monster.

Maybe Mert was right. Maybe they needed to find someone who could see they were no longer harmful. They could live with others, they just needed the chance. Maybe they couldn’t make up for what they were, but they could try. The pain of it was still there, thumping and humming in his chest.

Roderick’s energy was returning. Warmth. It felt good.

His eyes opened slowly, their apertures widening to adjust to the pitch black of the ancient tunnels. “Mert,” he barked. “Where you at?”

The cable hung from his chest like a black snake. It twisted down Roderick’s body, along the rock, and up again where it sank its teeth into Mert. Mert. He had given the last of his himself.

“Old fool,” he spat. “Coward!” He leaned forward and brushed Mert’s forehead with the back of his hand. “You brave fucking coward...”

He was alone—finally and truly alone. A maze of tunnels with no one but him in it. He was aware of his own quivering breaths.

Roderick stood. There was no helping it. He had to move on. Up.

He squeezed and ducked and climbed his way further into this newer section of the world. Chunks of broken cinder blocks lined the walls, interspersed with iron bars and copper pipes. The claws of lost machines had scraped deep into pockets of sandstone. The humidity rose. Beads of condensation formed beneath his arms and in between his legs and joints.

Then, he reached the end. The final wall was unfinished, unimpressive. Bits of uncollected debris filled the area—some useless, others possible sources of fuel.

But it made no difference. The Mouth was too far to walk back to. Roderick’s inner alarm hammered. He needed to hibernate.

He steadied himself against the wall with one arm and took a deep breath. He tried to fight the urge to rest, but it was a part of him, tugging at his eyes and nerves and muscles to stop resisting. But couldn’t he resist? Deep down, he also had the urge to kill... yet he resisted that. He and his men had come a long way to overcome their instincts. They were better now.

If only someone knew how far they had come.

He bent down and clawed at the loose earth, tossing aside chunks of cement and decayed wood. He aimed slightly up, determined to make the tunnel rise. Fatigue washed through him, but he ignored it, digging, digging.

Something flat began to emerge. A box.

A new purpose overcame him and he increased his speed. This could be what he needed—proof of the Makers.

He brushed the last bit of dirt away and read the box: LAUDEN ARMADA SUPPLY REC-0XX-12. There was an electronic keypad on the front, its numbers worn and its screen warped. Inside his mind he somehow knew the code, but it would do no good if the pad was inoperable. He flexed his arm and popped the solid hinges. The metal exterior was the same non-corrosive metal as his skin.

In the center was a recording device. Roderick grabbed the little rectangle and impatiently inspected it for an activation switch. The front was a full screen, unscratched, and the back held the simple instructions of use: TAP SCREEN TO BEGIN RECORDING. He did so, but nothing happened. The back panel unscrewed easily to reveal two empty spots.

He fumbled through the mess of wires and supplies until he found a smaller box labeled BATTERIES. This was it! He jammed his thumb-scoop into the lock and popped it open. Inside were dozens of knuckle-sized discs and bound cylinders, each glazed with tiny acidic crystals and half melted.

They were useless, he knew.

His optical apertures were trying to close on him. His internal alarm beat at his stomach. He didn’t have much time.

He plugged the dual injector into his chest. Then he stripped the other side into bare wires, struggling to keep his weary hands steady. As carefully as he could, he wrapped the proper ends of the wires into the power supply of the recorder.

“We’re sorry,” he whispered, tapping frantically at the screen, urging it to start. The extra power was draining already. “We’re so sorry. We thought we were doing what you wanted, but we hurt so many... We’re ashamed...”

He knew it would be over soon. Now was his only chance. If he ever wanted the Makers to hear him—for anyone to understand—he had to speak out while he was able to power the device.

“Come back!” he cried. “We never meant to push you all away! We’re better now! We’re still useful... You should see what I made. My thumb is part scoop. It’s really useful for digging, I swear. And grabbing. I can make more things—better things! We didn’t mean to scare you... We—”

His voice sizzled, then made a final pop. He could no longer speak, and he could barely see. With one last motion, he pulled the rifle free of his back. Pain shot through his entire body, but it was worth it. He was better now. The killing was no longer part of him. 

His insides yanked him toward slumber, but he was far past the point of hibernation. Maybe his punishment was ending now. Roman and Mert and Deuter and all of his brothers would be waiting for him, far above, where the tunnel had no ceiling.

And... at least...

… at least someone would hear him, someday. He left a message. They would hear him, know he existed. Know that he never meant to become...

Roderick’s head fell and his limbs went limp. The last bit of life flickered from his eyes, but he smiled.

The screen of the device lit into a pale blue, then began recording.



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