Life in Vault 20, David Mordin knew, was good.
All right, so there was always 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 after all the horror stories he'd heard of the world outside, he had no desire to expand that ground. Here, he had friends, food, a home – none of that was worth giving up on a mad whim to explore the certain desolation outside. Not that any of those crazy enough to want to could try – the Vault had sealed them all inside until conditions outside were deemed livable.
Vault 20 was safety. Vault 20 was life. Vault 20 was home.
It was peaceful here. He had a job he enjoyed, working in maintenance and making sure all the Vault's computers and programs were running soundly. He liked to play pool with his neighbors and watch the occasional Vault sporting event. He liked the Saturday gatherings, when they gave out extra late-night rations and ran the video projectors. And then, of course, there was his dear Valeria... the precious moments they shared were proof enough that he lived in paradise.
And now the twenty-seven-year-old man was going to witness something every dweller of Vault 20, both past and present, would have given anything to see. Hell, he'd taken on extra shifts for a month just to ensure that he and his wife had spaces in the front row of seats.
The assembly room was nearing full capacity. How a few hundred people could fit in here, he had no idea, but children were being relegated to parents' laps to open seats for adults, and plenty of floor spaces were occupied with his fellow vault-dwellers, all animatedly discussing and speculating on what was about to happen.
Valeria Mordin was practically trembling with excitement at his side. "I can't believe it's finally here!"
He smiled and stroked her hair. "Me too, love."
"Oh, but can you imagine? They say this is something we'll be telling our children about, and they to theirs." She laid a hand on her belly, gently feeling for the young life within. "I just can't believe it's finally, finally here. Everyone's been dreaming of this for two hundred years. Two hundred! I wonder what it could be?"
"I know, darling. No matter what this is, I'm sure it's a day no one will forget…"
He leaned back, humming to himself as he took in the wild speculation around him. Valeria was having an animated discussion with the man next to her, a technician he recognized from the control room as Mr. Ruckers. Mr. Ruckers was not his favorite person; the older man was not quite as content with working in maintenance, and it showed in his work ethic. True, maintenance could be a touchy job, and the Overseer had heavy surveillance on everything they did. But there was a good reason to be on edge about it - an incident some twenty years ago had seen one gibbering worker hack into the terminals in an attempt to cancel the very event the Vault was experiencing now. Even though the terrorist had failed, he'd succeeded in pushing back the event four years, and further tampering with the system could finish his awful work. It was a wholly justified fear, and still Mr. Ruckers liked to loudly complain about how needless the high security was. Every single day.
But David had eyes only for his wife. Her face was lovely when she smiled - excitement glittered in her eyes like stars. If not for propriety, he'd have swept her up in his arms and captured that perfect expression in a kiss...
It seemed like hours until the last straggler was accounted for. Whoever it was, they were going to get an earful later for holding things up. This was no mere sporting affair or entertainment night; this was the event of a lifetime. An expectant hush fell upon the crowd as the lights dimmed and all but the emergency exits slid shut.
The mainframe's screen lit up, revealing a picture of a smiling face and a neatly wrapped present.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen!" boomed the mainframe in a cheery voice. "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 lovely home, they were informed that this vault was special – that in two hundred years, a wonderful 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. Underneath the screen, a faint whirring was steadily increasing in volume. Renewed whispers ran through the crowd – something was happening, they knew it!
"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 thank you for making our vault your home for two hundred years, and here's to two hundred more!"
The platform beneath the mainframe was opening. A few shocked exclamations went up as those sitting on the floor were forced to scramble back, but everyone else was leaning forward with bated breath. What would this life-changing gift be? This was it, the great reveal –
And like any good stage event, it announced itself. Something was rising from the ground, the top of a large cylinder accompanied by a wreath of vapor. Oohs and aahs emerged from the crowd as the entire container surfaced; when it had fully emerged, the floor slid neatly back into place under it. It was constructed from something clear, but the hazy steam around it prevented anyone from getting a good look.
As the dry ice cleared, people began to notice the silhouette of something dark near the bottom. Even in the light, it was black. Black, streaked with veins of red.
Nobody knew what to expect from today, but even then, this… was not what anyone had expected. Excited whispers changed to curious mutters. David chanced a look at Valeria; his wife was frowning furtively. He squeezed her hand in reassurance.
"Everything's going to be fine," he murmured to her. "The vault was built by professionals. Everything's safe."
"I know," she whispered back. "But what is that stuff? It looks so…"
She trailed off. With a sucking sound, the front of the cylinder fell away, and warm air rushed inside. Patterns of frost and steam danced and wavered on the glasslike walls, and the people nearest to the presentation shuddered at the sudden gust of cold air.
The effect was immediate. The dark blob shivered once, as if sensing the heat. More murmurs went through the crowd, these ones just a hint uneasy, as it began to ooze, crawling out of the cylinder's opening and onto the warmer ground outside.
"Ergh," Mr. Ruckers grunted. "What is that?"
Nobody knew. They watched as it shuddered, pulling against itself as if it were something alive. They gasped when it began to pull itself upright, then into a shape – an unmistakable shape, the skeleton of a human. The whispers rose again and then fell, and the chamber echoed with sucking and popping noises as the goo rearranged itself. And there was silence for a few shivering moments as they took in what the creature had become.
It was… almost a person. Or a shadow of one. It had no skin, no features – it was greyish black, with streaks of red slithering around its torso, its limbs, its head. Larger red patches would split open on its surface occasionally, only to be painstakingly stitched back by the blackness. But the shape was off. It was emaciated, nearly skeletal. Its fingers were long – far too long, and tapered at the ends. The only discernible features were on its face… or where a face should have been. Blank but for two eyes; two piercing, icy eyes that roved across the room.
Then it shrieked.
David Mordin screamed.
Cold. He was so cold.
He blinked, then shut his eyes tightly against the sudden onslaught of light, spots dancing before his eyes. It was like staring straight into the sun for too long, except worse. Some corner of his mind whispered something about hangovers, but as always, he let the thoughts drift over his head and out of sight without resistance.
He tried to open his eyes again, more carefully this time. It was still bright, but it faded into a more moderate kind of bright the longer he endured it. And if he tilted his head down a shade, everything went dark.
He tasted dirt against his lips and spat it out, rolling to the side. Light again. And a bit of pain, too.
He shrugged his shoulders experimentally, then winced at the sharp ache it caused. Okay. So he was on a floor somewhere, and in pretty bad shape if his body actually hurt. Granted, it wasn't the first time he'd felt this bad, although it had been a few years since the terrible night that had seen him born. At least he wasn't weak and helpless this time, although he wasn't feeling too strong or confident either. He forced his thoughts into order. First line of business, figure out where he was.
It took him a few tries to get to his feet. Everything was spinning, and he couldn't really do much until he knew where the floor was.
The sense of dizziness remained even after he managed to get upright. He fixed his eyes on the floor and waited for his jeans to stop swimming.
It took him a minute to realize that his legs were trembling.
What the hell.
He sighed. He could heal himself later. Preferably sooner. There had to be somebody around he could use. For now, he had to figure out what the hell was going on before anything worse happened. A quick glance upward showed that the bright light that had bothered him so much radiated from ceiling strips. His eyes travelled down. The walls were metal. The floor was metal, too, as were the strangely shaped doors farther down the hall. Some kind of facility?
He took a step and staggered. The dizziness resurged with a vengeance; his head swam with nausea. He smelled fresh blood, but there was no life here, no heartbeats or sounds of breath – where was everyone? His vision blurred as he recalibrated his eyes to see heat signatures. There were outlines of distant machinery and their engines, he could see those through the walls, but he detected nothing that looked even vaguely like a person.
Screwing with his vision was only making his headache worse, so he let everything slip back into color. The air was stale and sterile, and did little to clear his head. The last thing he remembered was… pain. An impression of intense pain, like being burned away, and then –
Dana! Where was Dana?
If he'd had a working heart, his chest might have exploded with how fast it would have started pounding. Where was his sister? If he'd somehow been incapacitated, then where was she? Was she safe? Had Blackwatch found her? He couldn't remember… had she even been involved when he'd been rendered unconscious? He didn't know, and unease gnawed at the corners of his mind. If she had gotten hurt because of him, he would never forgive himself.
He forced himself to walk again. His gait eventually evened out, but he still stumbled from time to time, bracing himself against the walls when needed. Why did he feel so weak? How had he gotten here? Why couldn't he remember?
He found a few rooms – they looked like dormitories, strangely enough. Here, he discovered items. Planters, empty bottles, jumpsuits with the number 20 emblazoned on their backs, old books, a crib, a teddy bear… The day Blackwatch let a teddy bear into one of their bases was the day he started doing community service, so that ruled them out. Maybe. Who else could have possibly captured him?
He wasn't used to this kind of stuff. No weapon racks, no chemical cocktails or spare parts - just common junk. Stuff he might find lying around Dana's apartment. This looked utterly civilian. But then what was he doing here?
There were computers, too; bulky, old models he only knew from vague memories. Maybe they would provide some clues…? But they were password-encrypted and his head was a fuzzy mess, so he left them where they were and went back out into the corridor.
Twists, turns, the echo of heavy footsteps on metal, fluorescent lights. The pounding in his head. It was all jumbled into a disorienting rhythm. Step, ache, breathe. Stairs. That was something new. He hauled himself up each set, hating the burn in his legs, dimly aware that up meant freedom. Was he underground? There were no windows, no matter how many flights he took.
His awareness sharpened when he crested the final staircase and the layout finally changed. Up until this point, there had been narrow corridors with various rooms branching out from the sides. Now there was a wide room with a half-sublevel, full of machinery and wires… and at the very end, a door.
The door was shaped like a giant gear, and from the way it failed to react to a massive push, weighed at least several tons. And as far as he could see, there was no way to open it. Maybe it was connected to some of this machinery, but he didn't know how to use it and oh god his head was killing him…
Animal desperation clawed at his gut. He wasn't going to be trapped here!
With a roar, he braced himself against it and forced the massive thing aside with all his strength. It wasn't enough. He was too weak, too dizzy, his usual power nowhere to be found; the oversized gear didn't even budge. With a groan, he slumped against the wall and buried his face in his hands. He felt like hell. Was he going to die here? What had they done to him?
A mechanical voice came from somewhere on the ceiling, and his head snapped up. And maybe it was his head spinning, but it sounded perversely cheerful.
"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 helpful, productive member of the Vault. Thank you, and have a nice day!"
He blinked, but before he could try to process what he'd just heard, another clip played. "Cross-referencing with Vault 20 project… status is activated. Subject has been released. Running check. Radiation levels are deemed MINIMAL. Project is considered complete. Vault 20 programs shutting down. Congratulations, you're free to go!"
Project? Subject? What the hell was it talking about? The words mattered for about three seconds and were then utterly forgotten, because the lights were fading and the door was rolling aside.
Scarcely daring to believe his luck, Alex Mercer stood up…
…and took his first few breaths of a dead world.
[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.]