Life in Vault 20, David Mordin knew, was good.
Okay, so there was a sense of monotony when one's entire world covered about a hundred thousand square feet at the highest estimate. That was a given. But he had a dim opinion of those stir-crazy chumps who talked about reclaiming the lands beyond. Everyone knew the outside was filled with radiation, communists, and ultraviolet light. In Vault 20, he had three meals a day, the comfort of friends, and a place in the world. None of that was worth giving up on a mad whim to explore certain desolation. Not that any of the would-be pioneers had a chance to endanger themselves. The Vault's seals were designed to lift once the danger had passed, and that door had been shut tight for generations. That was the reality of it - wanderlust was just a phase every Vault-Dweller had to get through, preferably sooner than later.
Vault 20 was safety. Vault 20 was life. Vault 20 was home.
Those were the words on the loudspeaker that had roused the twenty-seven-year-old man from his bed this morning, and God willing, those were the words that would greet him on the day he died. And pushing his way through the cramped auditorium, it was hard not to feel the lack of space. Children around him were being relocated to their parents' laps, and he wasn't the only latecomer searching for a stray seat. The assembly could fit hundreds, but attendance had always been relaxed for the frail and the very young. With the wracking cough from the back row, David doubted anyone had taken sick leave.
Because for all the constants in his life, monotony was nowhere to be found today.
It had been the talk of the Vault for weeks. There was no escaping it - all conversations gravitated towards the Event, like a magnetic pull that tugged more at routine the closer it drew. They'd even had to turn off the projector at last weekend's social program when Mr. Adams joined in the debate that had laid waste to the 'no talking' rule within the first five minutes of movie. The usually strict event supervisor had earned words from the Overseer for the breach in routine afterwards, but also a few beers and a lot of warm greetings in the halls, so David had hope he might loosen up again. It had been a great evening - each theory wilder than the last, and each drink warmer in his throat.
"Darling! Over here!"
There she was - the unquestioned proof that he lived in paradise, waving two rows from the front and dead center. How Valerie had saved a seat in such prime real estate, he could only guess, but he loved this woman more each day he knew her.
He squeezed through the crowd, though his face fell by fractions when he saw who was on the other side of his seat. Of all his coworkers, Arnie Ruckers was the one he liked least. There was no real rivalry there, but the maintenance room was small and the corpulent man's complaining could fill it twice over. He was the kind of person that always had an opinion. Unfortunately for the past few months, one of those opinions was that the Event was going to be the day Vault 20 opened its doors, and David had heard more than enough about it. Radiation wasn't going to just suddenly drop off the planet, and this day had been scheduled lifetimes ago.
But no matter. His wife was good enough company for five of him. He ducked in for a kiss, and Valerie giggled, shooing him back. "Sit down! It's nearly starting!"
"Yeah, once all those slackers show up," Arnie grunted, giving David a critical eye. "They shouldn't keep us waiting before they finally let us out of this place. I've been sitting here for an entire hour."
"It's been half that at most." Valerie leaned over to give him that missing peck on the cheek. "Besides, what's a few minutes on two hundred years? Everyone should have the chance to be here."
"Two hundred and four," he corrected primly. There were crumbs in his mustache. "Already waited longer than I should have. You youngsters don't know how lucky you have it. If I were still in my prime…"
As little as he wanted to listen to this, Arnie did have a point. It was a hypocritical point, because one of the other things his coworker liked to complain about was the heavy surveillance in the control room and how the bulky cameras got in his way, but there was a reason for the extra security in the tech sector, and that reason was the open secret that the Event had been postponed. There'd been an incident some seventy years ago where a former Overseer had sabotaged Vault 20's directives, trying to cancel today's promise in a fit of anarchy. Thankfully he'd been stopped before he could complete his work, but the system wasn't stable anymore and further tampering with the Event date was strictly forbidden. Four years late was better than a permanent cancellation.
To most people, anyway. Arnie Ruckers had loudly wanted to put the date back where it belonged. David Mordin less loudly thought that Arnie was the reason those cameras were there.
But they were here now. Today was the day everyone learned how their lives were about to change.
That was the thing; nobody knew what the Event was. Everyone knew about the Event. It was a cornerstone upon which Vault 20 had been founded and a point of pride for its inhabitants. Generations before his had aspired to reach today, and generations after would remember it. The speech at Geoff Whitaker's funeral two months ago had lamented that the elderly cook hadn't hung on just a few weeks longer, and there hadn't been a dry eye there.
Two hundred and four years of waiting, all for this moment. Valerie must have noticed him drifting, because she squeezed his hand. "Are you excited?"
"I am, but I can't get my hopes too high." She raised her eyebrows, and he squeezed back. "After all, Vault 20's already given me the most perfect gift in the world."
Oh, but she was so lovely when she smiled back at him. If not for propriety, he'd have swept her up in his arms and captured that perfect expression in a kiss...
The moment didn't last; they both pivoted in their seats when the lights abruptly dimmed. The Overseer had arrived, striding proudly down the aisle for his spot at center front. The doors shut behind him with a click.
That was it, then. Everyone was here. He wasn't a fanciful man, but when the hush descended on the room, it felt like destiny came down with it, waiting.
The Vault let them wonder for a few choice moments longer before the video screen lit up. A picture of a smiley face and a wrapped present bathed the auditorium in white light.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen!" the speakers boomed cheerfully. "And it IS a good day! When Vault 20 was created, it had YOU in mind! When your ancestors first packed their things for our cozy home, they were informed that this vault was special – that in two hundred years, an amazing gift would commemorate two centuries of successful living."
There was a certain amount of theatrics involved with such an event, and Vault 20's residents were happy to let themselves get swept up in it. Murmurs were creeping back in as imaginations grew bolder than reverence. And beneath that growing noise was another - a faint whirring, steadily increasing in volume. Anticipation plucked at the hairs on the back of David's neck.
Heavens, but he hoped the Vault wasn't opening.
"This gift is not just a gift - it's a one-of-a-kind opportunity, and YOU are the lucky generation to receive it! What happens today will change your lives! So take a moment to remember - all of this is possible because you fine American citizens have worked together through adversity to lead productive and orderly lives. Your performance was projected to be distinctly average, and you have managed to surpass those expectations with flying colors. Give yourselves a pat on the back!"
Machinery was starting to move on stage. Was that fog? He could almost see, but the Overseer was a very broad-shouldered man and David wasn't tall. He leaned closer to Valerie to get a better look and chuckled when she started playing with his hair. Someone to his back swatted at her hand, protesting.
"We at Vault-Tec thank you for making our vault your home for two hundred years. Here's to setting the stage to the next two hundred!"
There was no mistaking it - the platform beneath the screen was definitely opening up. He hadn't even known it could do that. No wonder they'd never let anyone sit on the floor. It didn't sound like the Vault was turning them loose, and that was a relief, but he was at a bit of a loss to as to what else might be coming. Some kind of machine that would make their lives easier, perhaps? Something was rising from the gap; he could just make out the top of a large cylinder, its ascent accompanied by a wreath of vapor. It was taller than it was wide, perhaps big enough to fit a small child inside. The floor clanked shut beneath its fully emergent shape to oohs and aahs, but the anticipation was wearing thin on David. He wasn't the first person to stand. It was hard to see around the haze, but he was pretty sure the capsule was translucent.
The dry ice cleared quickly. There was something dark near the bottom. Even in the light, it was black. Black and streaked with veins of red.
He didn't know how to feel about that. It didn't sound like he was the only one, either; the timbre of the crowd had changed, the whispers less excited and more confused. David chanced a look at Valerie and found her frowning.
"Everything's going to be fine," he murmured to her. "The Vault was built by professionals. Everything's safe."
"I know. But what is that stuff? It looks so…"
She never found the right word. With a sucking sound, the front of the cylinder fell away, and warm air rushed inside. Patterns of frost and steam skittered on the glasslike walls, and he shivered at the chilly, strange-smelling gust along with everyone else in the front rows.
The effect was immediate. The dark blob shuddered once, as if reacting to the heat. More murmurs passed through the auditorium, these ones just a hint uneasy, as it began to ooze, crawling out of the opening and onto the warmer stage outside.
"Eurgh," Arnie grunted. "What is that?"
David didn't know. There'd been plenty of madcap theories bandied around in recent weeks, but even the ones he'd laughed at were starting to look tame. He gripped his wife's hand as the thing quivered, pulling against itself as if it were alive. He couldn't help but gasp when it cemented that thought and pulled itself upright, then into a shape - a shape that was impossible to mistake for anything other than a human skeleton. The crowd's whispers fell dead at that; in their absence, the sucking and popping sounds from the stage were horribly loud. The silence lasted a few tenuous moments past them as everyone took in what the Event had given them.
It was… almost a person. That was the only comparison David could think of. There was a body over the skeleton and the silhouette was almost right, but the details were utterly vacant. It had no skin or features - all of it was black and fleshy red, torso and limbs and head all cut from the same unnerving cloth.
It didn't look like a gift. It looked damaged. The body was emaciated, the limbs almost fleshless. Its fingers were stretched much too long and tapered to razor points. Larger red patches would split open in random places before the blackness stitched them shut. For a few seconds, that was the only sign it was alive.
Two eyes blinked open on its empty face, ice-blue and vacant as they roamed the room.
Then it shrieked.
The Overseer's blood splashed across his face.
David Mordin screamed.
Cold. He was so cold.
He opened his eyes and regretted it. It was too bright, or his retinas too honed for darkness - either way, the result was like staring into the sun, and the spots lingered long after he'd slammed them shut. He didn't remember needing any kind of night vision, but he didn't really know what he'd been doing until a few seconds ago, so he muddled past the question in favor of fixing his eyes.
Turned out they were normal and he'd been right the first time; it was just really, really bright. He blinked more carefully this time, letting himself acquiesce to the light level. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected. Industrial, maybe; white rather than warm, and blessedly dimmer by the second. Everything on the bottom third of his vision was black, and he couldn't figure that out until he tilted his head down and the whole thing went dark.
He rolled to his side. Bright again, until he twisted to brace his hands against the floor. And he was definitely on a floor, because he could taste the dirt caked on his lips. He spat halfheartedly and shoved himself upright.
Or that was what should have happened, anyway. He felt himself wobble and heard the thud when he crashed back down, but it took a few seconds past them to process what had happened.
Old anxiety had him groping for his back, but there was nothing there - there hadn't been for years. But it had been that many years since his body had failed him like this. He let go of the smooth leather and sucked in a breath, more habit than help. What was he dealing with? Nothing felt right, now that he stopped to muddle through the signals. He was freezing, a sensation he knew better secondhand, and the chill bit deeper than the tepid floor he was pressed against. The pounding headache was more familiar, as was the kind of ache he got after he was slammed through several walls at once, but he couldn't see where the walls were because nothing he looked at was holding still. And his body… it was there, but distant. Like he was reaching through a curtain of fog.
It was still his. That was all that mattered. Through his head swam with the effort, he pulled himself to his knees. At least he knew his limbs worked, and they didn't feel like they were melting, but they weren't near as steady as they should have been. How were people supposed to deal with dizziness? Something about ears, or hydration… the memories pounded at his skull like jackhammers, more noise than information. Screw it; he didn't have time for this. He shut his eyes and heaved, and was more relieved than he wanted to be when he made it to his feet on his first try.
He was less relieved when he found his legs were still shaking.
What the hell had he been doing?
At least he could see more than light and darkness now. It looked like he was in the middle of a hallway, one with metal floors and metal walls. Some kind of facility? The fluorescent strips on the ceiling stung his eyes, but there weren't any turret mounts, so that was a step above expectations, if also confusing.
He didn't recognize this place. His head hurt too much to search if anyone else had.
What had he been doing? The vertigo was fading and it was getting easier to think, but he was still drawing blank on how he'd ended up like this. That worried him as much as the weakness, if not more. From the feel of it, he'd just been hit with something nasty even by Blackwatch standards. He had to be in danger, but from what, he was coming up empty.
…If it had been Blackwatch, where were they now?
Reality was phasing back in stages, and the one that hit him now was that he was alone. It was more than just the absence of the guns that should have been pointed at him. It was the stillness through the floor and the lack of radiant heat (god, but this chill wouldn't leave him.) The only sounds he could hear were distant and electrical – none of the arrhythmia that could lead him to footsteps or breathing.
His sense for where people were was damn near pinpoint. But there was a trace of copper in his nostrils. Fresh.
He shut his eyes and tugged at them, changing their structure. When they next opened, they were calibrated for heat signatures and the hall swam with colors he had no names for. They painted outlines, sharp-edged masses; unclear shapes churned dimmer through walls. Some were clearly machines and others stubbornly vague, but even after an unsteady pivot, he detected nothing that could have been a person.
So the blood was probably his. He didn't know how much of himself he'd lost, but he felt unbalanced in a way his swimming eyesight didn't account for… though the infrared probably wasn't helping things on that front, and he let his eyes unfocus back to the normal spectrum.
Yeah, no. That hadn't helped either.
He could heal himself later. Preferably sooner, but he didn't think he was critical; he'd find someone he could use eventually. Right now, he had to figure out what the hell was going on before anything worse could happen to him. Get outside, find out where he was on the island, and regroup with…
Dana! Where was Dana?
If he'd had a working heart, it would have burst into action. As it was, bits of him whipped about, coiling anxious shapes on his arms. Where was his sister? He was somewhere he didn't recognize and he was pretty sure he'd passed out, and that meant he'd left her vulnerable. How long had he been out? Was she still safe, or had Blackwatch found her? He gripped his head and groaned, because he couldn't remember. There was almost something there, more an impression than a memory - the feeling of intense, engulfing pain, like being burned away from the outside in. But the more he tried to focus on it, the less sure he was it had ever happened.
It would come back to him. It always did, sooner or later, and if Dana wasn't accounted for, then he wasn't waiting for the answer to find him on its own terms.
If she'd been taken - if he'd fucked up again - he was never going to forgive himself.
He still wasn't stable on his feet, but there was no way he was standing around after that, and between the walls-as-handrails and sheer frustration, he managed to stumble his way down the hall. Still couldn't see any people, live or otherwise, but now there were rows of doors and one of them had to go somewhere other than here.
They didn't, not really. They looked like dormitories, cramped and identical to each other save their occupants' belongings. Those were the first things he looked through, but the contents were strangely mundane. Planters, empty bottles, old books, tracksuits - though the last of those might have been a clue, since they all sported the same '20' on the backs. His brow creased when he came across a teddy bear in a crib. The day Blackwatch let children into their bases was the day he did community service, so he might be able to rule them out completely. But if they hadn't been the ones to incapacitate him and drag him to their turf, who did that even leave?
The clutter wasn't giving any answers. No weapon racks, no chemical cocktails or spare parts - they were more the kinds of things Dana kept at her desk. It was wrong enough that this place lacked personnel, but the most dangerous thing he found was hand sanitizer. If someone was going to go through the colossal effort of capturing him, wouldn't they keep something on hand to subdue him once he woke up? Even a handgun would show that they'd tried.
Whatever they'd hit him with, it'd been bad. So it didn't matter if he couldn't find anything; he had to assume they were packing heat somewhere.
There were computers in some of the rooms; bulky, outdated models only familiar from memory. But they were password-encrypted and his head still threatened murder when he tried to dig around, so he gave up after a few tries. Dana would have known what to do with them, but it was Dana he was after in the first place. Hunting down whoever had knocked him out was only so important. He wasn't chasing any leads until he knew she was safe.
He left the computers behind. He didn't know where he was going, but up felt like progress; either he'd find a ground floor or he'd find a roof, and either one of those meant he was out of here. He was expecting the former; there were no windows, and some thickness in the air hinted towards the underground. Never where he wanted to be. Harder to get away.
Not a welcome thought, when he might actually be trapped.
But this place looked abandoned. There weren't as many of those as there'd once been, but even years after the Outbreak, construction crews had yet to reclaim every condemned building in the city. It was the sort of thing Cross might have used, if he were still around. So was that it? Was somebody trying to meet with him?
If so, they'd forgotten to show up. And with the welcome they'd rolled out for him, he wasn't going to stick around. He hauled himself up each set of stairs, hating the burn in his legs and the way the lights pulsed every time he moved his eyes.
When he finally reached the last flight, he couldn't tell how far he'd climbed - only that the layout had finally changed. Up until this point, the halls had been narrow and crammed with rows of doors. Now there was a broad room with a sublevel, lined floor to ceiling with control panels… and at the very end, on the lip of a rising ramp, stood a massive door.
He might have observed the door was shaped like an oversized gear, or that the chips in the chrome revealed the bluish gloss of lead beneath. He did not. He saw the door, and didn't think much past that.
He shoved it, and shoved harder once he felt the several-ton weight behind it. It wouldn't move. He slammed his fists against it, each blow fiercer than the last, but the metal barely buckled, and his fists were splitting open and that wasn't right and his head was killing him…
Animal desperation clawed at his gut. He wasn't going to be trapped here!
With a roar, he threw every ounce of his power he could scrape together against his captor. His arms bulged, turning sleek and grey, and the door shrieked back as metal met something far less yielding than flesh. He strained and shoved, refusing to back down, and at last felt something shift. A moment of triumph was all he got before the pain snapped through his shattered elbow.
Fuck. He didn't even bother to fix it; the back of his jacket scraped the wall as he sank to the ground, good hand trying to crush the headache from his skull.
That was it. That was the best he could do, and he hated it, because even through the haze he knew it shouldn't have been. It didn't matter if that door was sealed or anchored; he'd done more before. So that meant he was less. Certainly he felt like shit. What had they done to him?
The broken arm wasn't doing him any favors. He reconnected the split muscles, but let the cracked exoskeleton sink back beneath his skin. Was that it? Did he just give up and wait for his jailer to come back? They could plan all they liked - he might be too damaged to get through that thing, but killing was his oldest, sharpest skill.
No. They'd done this much to him; they could do more. Regrouping was more important than revenge right now… and Dana was out there somewhere, vulnerable. His fingers clenched. If only he could fucking think-
His head snapped up. A speaker on the ceiling had sputtered to life.
"Please step away from the door, vault-dweller. You don't want to go outside! Radiation levels are deemed HIGH. Your life is in much better hands here at Vault 20! If you're feeling as though you just want to end it all, please see the med bay on Sublevel 2 for some helpful suggestions on how you can turn your life around and become a happy, productive member of the Vault community. Thank you, and have a nice day!"
He blinked, but before he could start to process what he'd just heard, it spoke again, this time absent of the obnoxious cheer. "Cross-referencing with Vault 20 project. Status is post-preliminary. Running check… radiation levels are deemed MINIMAL. Status will be set to complete. Vault 20 programs shutting down."
Project? Status? What was it talking about? The words mattered for about three seconds and were then utterly forgotten, because the lights were dimming and the door was rolling aside.
Scarcely daring to believe his luck, Alex Mercer stood up…
…and took his first breath of air in the dead world beyond.
[Achievement Unlocked! Awakening (5pts) –You have no idea where you are, how you got there, or why any of this is happening. Tastes like a storyline.]