~ a short story

The woman climbed the ladder for over 32 minutes. It stretched up towards a light. Each steel bar represented a few inches of progress, a few inches closer to her freedom. She did not tire and did not rest during the exertion. The light close now, her muscles pulsed with vivacity at the sight. After a few more meters, she reached up towards the threshold and pulled herself up and out.

This is the end, finally.


She never really understood the why; when it came down to it, there was only the how.

Survival afore introspection, something of her mantra.

She’d remained within this mode of thought. Catching her breath now, relief came at this end. Meaningfully, she motioned to sprawl out for a moment. She wished to stretch her legs and her awareness beyond that claustrophobic, darkened space she’d just spent too long in. There was light here. Dim, but it still allowed her to see where she was now. A chill went up her spine.

Surrounding her was a scene similar in appearance from whence she had just come. There were rooms of shining steel marred by time, of varying sizes and purposes. Great tabled halls matched up with kitchens and bunks and halls and screens. Each of these living spaces interspersed themselves between thresholds without doors, save for a few. These chambers, much like the place she just emerged from, had spaces which were open to be viewed from many perspectives. There was glass everywhere and no walls unless there needed to be. It all awaited her exploration.


~ art source

She moved freely from room to room, surveying the scenes. Her well-insulated jumpsuit protected her from a chill in the air. However, the chill along her spine had not gone away. The key bit from her inspection thus far was this: There was nobody left. More specifically, there was nobody left alive.

The bodies laid out and about. Men, women, children. For some it was clear what exactly caused their demise. Violence of one kind or another. For others, the means were less obvious. Generally, along with the blood came smells and heat. Many of these people, the ones outside of the inner living quarters and in the medical center, had been killed very recently. Within the last 24 hours. This was clear even from a cursory investigation.

She wished that this wasn’t so familiar to her. She wished she didn’t already have the capacity to answer that little why question concerning the state of this place. She wished.


The woman continued to explore the spaces of this place. The silence throughout had a spell to it that added to her weariness. But it was not weariness of the physical kind. Occasionally, she grunted or took a deep breath, or mumbled something to herself as she puzzled through opening a door or moving something reasonably heavy. Outside of that, there were no sounds to hear and no other movements to note. Nothing to talk to, much to think about.

Despite the long day thus far, she found that she still had plenty of energy. Likely a result of her training, among other things. There was no telling what kind of effects each of the injections she had taken were having. At this point, it did not matter. There was no recourse. Despite all the uncertainties, she knew she would survive this. As long as she kept her head down and kept moving. That was what she kept telling herself. So far, it was working.

Soon she found herself within ‘The Welcome Room.’ They’d had one too, from where she’d surfaced. It had been so long since she had been there, she forgot what it looked like. Some childhood memories don’t last. She also forgot its purpose, and its message. But the sign read just the same, and some tinge of remembrance returned.

The woman stepped into the center of the room, before the screen which just then was flickering to life. Lights overhead dimmed automatically, and then the video counted down from 5. Rabble-rousing music played upon its screen, alongside an overly-enthusiastic voice of a man sounding like a salesman. In truth, he was a salesman, but the woman didn’t know that; she didn’t know what a salesman might sound like.

The video played its content and the woman remained standing in the center of the room, resolutely intrigued by it and her lack of memory of it. The light from the screen’s image blanketed her form and the patch upon her jumpsuit reading ‘3000.’ The audio from the video informed her of details she began to reminisce over.

Absently, while listening, the woman continued to fidget, wiping her hands vigorously. She’d continued to do so since the climb. Wiping and wiping and wiping. It was to no avail, the blood on them was long dry.


“Welcome to Vault 3,001! Here, you and your family will find a second home, far away from the burning hellfire currently still raining down from the sky far, far above us. Here, you can continue to live in peace and harmony with your fellow Americans!

“Don’t worry, we know you have a lot of questions — I am here to tell you that we have all the— “

On that word, the video stopped its production and the screen went black. The woman snapped out of it, and stood at attention at the surprise. On the screen, in stark green lettering backdropped against the blackness, was a 7-digit number. The words on the screen designated an associated room number below the digits, which she soon surmised was a door code.

The woman quickly memorized the digits, mumbling them repetitively for a few moments as she headed out of The Welcome Room. She finally blinked, regaining her determination in spite of the subtle revelations from the video.

How much of all of this have I blacked out? She looked down at the number on the patch of her jumpsuit.

Did those affect my memory? Her gaze turned down to her wrist and arm, the minute pinpricks from the needles still barely showing.

What is this code and this room? … I have to find out… She moved quickly through the halls of the vault.


The woman moved deeper into the facility, past more bodies and more carnage. She walked quickly through more hallways and more common rooms, marking the numbers on the doors and their progression as she went. The room number she sought, the one from the screen, was higher. She directed herself along the ascending path of chronological room plaques, all of them conveniently placed uniformly along the thresholds.

In time, she noticed the design of the facility was identical from where she had come. The thought passively unnerved her, much like everything else she had witnessed here thus far. But she kept going, kept putting those thoughts back away in an effort to allocate her attention to the tasks at hand.

It took more than a passive level of effort to navigate through the spaces here. Not because of its inherent design, but more so the state of its disrepair. The space was structured quite well, efficient gatherings of furniture and space for a variety of purposes and large amounts of persons. Obstacles were generated from the current state of that furniture and the level of destruction and debris. There were tables overturned, windows broken, doors knocked down, holes in the floor and the ceiling, even bullet shells and evidence of dying flames in spots.

It was becoming increasingly clear that whatever had swept through here, had moved with brutal efficiency. The person, or persons… the murderers had moved with a mind to vanquish everything and everyone in their path. No one had been left merely injured. Every person that was killed recently was cleanly killed in a moment. As for the other bodies, more decomposed, some entirely so, the woman could not make out a cause of death. Natural, maybe?

She was taking the time to make these closer inspections, and it wasn’t clear to her why. It might be due to her inherent and very much humanly-natured curiosity. Or it could be due to the potential danger at hand. After all, there could be a high-powered madman still on the loose somewhere within the complex.

Why do I keep instinctually thinking a single person did this? That a single person could even be capable of doing —

She spotted the number. It was next to a door which appeared to be made of different material than the other rooms. She made her way over to it, developing a plan on how she might get it open. To her surprise, the door was already ajar. She pushed her way through. The room was small and had no windows. In fact, to a passerby it might appear as though it was a room of no consequence, perhaps even just a supply closet. She could not remember a similar room from the place she had come. Although she had also never ventured this deep into her own complex.

Inside, it was books and computers and more books. And there was a single dead body. It was a man. Killed recently, like most of the others. The man’s throat had been cleanly cut. His head lay atop the desk, surrounded by bloody paperwork. His hand lay atop the end of a keyboard next to the computer with the largest screen in the room. She moved closer and noticed the screen was on, entirely black save for a single word in the top left corner. In green text, with the cursor blinking steadily after, it read:


All the other computer screens in the room were not only off, they were broken. The glass from the screens covered parts of the floor, next to a clutter of books and more paper. A quick glance across the shelves showed her the books dealt with a smorgasbord of scientific, psychological, mathematical, and economic concepts, among others. Experimental design, chaos theory, extra-sensory psychosis. Disinterested in those words, she ignored them, her eyes drawn back down to the keyboard.

The dead man’s hand, more specifically his index finger, was specifically placed on the Enter key. Assessing the room once more, the woman considered many possibilities, before proceeding to press down on the exposed portion of the enter key with her own index finger. She watched the screen.

Final Log, Vault 3000, Dr. Mawn.


This will be my last entry. The others have been archived, sent away, perhaps even deleted. I do not know. But I am writing this for good reason. I am here to summarize the origination, process, and results of what it is that we did here. This is important for posterity. Unfortunately, I also have to be concise because I don’t have a ton of time. I will do my best. After all, that’s what this place was all about.

The vaults were to house as much of the human population as possible, to protect the species in the event of the worst case scenario: nuclear war. It wasn’t just the United States that created them, most every country did. Once it became clear that nuclear war was going to be on the menu for us… forever, then most countries felt obligated. So they were built within each country. And their specific locations were not spread out — there was a central location in every country which could house the hundreds and even thousands of individual vaults collectively, and vertically. At this singular location, a spot was drilled deep into the Earth’s crust, and each of the vaults was stacked vertically atop one another in this way to fit the designated number of them. In our case, it was 5,000. (The most vaults of any one country, classic USA exceptionalism… for better or worse.)

Each vault was to be equipped to shelter and provide relatively comfortable survival resources for several hundred people. Invariably these vaults were designed for longevity. They would need to absolutely protect the inhabitants within from radiation from the surface world. Additionally, in the event that the surface never becomes hospitable again due to the bombs, these facilities would have to be providence for the continuation of the entire species. Needless to say, it was paramount that the vaults be designed well. Each country, and their top thinkers, were given relatively free reign to design the specs of the vault under this common methodology. Despite having individual designers for each of the 5,000, the US was relatively uniform. We all communicated with one another to formulate our plan for the prototypical vault, and then went from there.

The choice around whom of the populace would gain access to the vaults would also differ depending on both the individual vault and the country. These decisions were complex in some ways, but in other ways mostly simple. It came down to money — who had more of it and who could afford to buy their way in. Which is ironic, given the circumstances of a nuclear holocaust rendering such a thing as money irrelevant. Or at least a new kind of system would certainly emerge.

There are two things I wish to convey here in this final report:

1) the true purpose of the vaults, and

2) why we now find ourselves down here.

In hindsight, after typing that I am realizing that the second point is more important and serves to change the answer of the first point. So I’ll just cut to the core of the matter. There’s been enough prefacing.

We were able to create the vaults years ago, the finished product awaiting our arrival but of course hoping that the day would never come where we would have to actually utilize them. But alas, it did — just not in the form we expected. There was no nuclear holocaust, the world wasn’t entirely destroyed {although many of its people were}. The surface is not now covered in insufferable and inhospitable radiation. And most importantly, the culprit was not a fellow superpower, not a country, not a band of eco-terrorists or a single madman who hacked our systems.

But something did happen and there was a culprit. We went down here for good reason.


I know what you are thinking but it’s true. They descended upon the world with furious violence and yet surprisingly careful designs. The alien invasion wasn’t particularly a long-form affair. They had us before we could even properly respond. My understanding is that they are simply much more advanced than us.

There’s not really much more to it, other than the fact that they did not have good intentions for us once they had gained control.

We engaged the vault program and I was one of the chosen few designated with this shocking, unnerving, destabilizing, cursed bit of knowledge. At least, of those that survived. And we were allowed by them to engage this vault program. They learned of it, measured a response, and gave it to our governmental leaders with patience. They wanted to use to the vaults to see about us. In effect, that’s what they said. Or at least, that’s the extent of what I was told. As I said, I don’t know who they are {outside of them being true extra-terrestrials, from outer space} or what they want, for the most part. All I know is that they came here to conquer, and they did. The world up there, while still technically there, will be quite different than how any of us remember it. It’s not ours anymore.

But they didn’t wipe us out. From what I was told, that was likely their original intention. From their own mouths, they didn’t want to take long here. Perhaps bigger fish to fry elsewhere in the cosmos. Top brass informed me that their ambitions are grand and their movements through the stars are widespread. This wasn’t the first world they had been to and done in this way and it wouldn’t be the last. All of this being information they gave up freely… But given the nature of our setup here — our history (seemingly vast to us, perhaps merely interesting to them), our current state of affairs (that of constant shadow wars between superpowers and pending nuclear annihilation, ever so closely in the brink), and our necessarily devious plans to survive what we saw not only as likely, but as perhaps inevitable, through the use of these vaults — the aliens changed up their own plans. They directed us to engage the vault program, but with some new directives and design feature addendums.

Now, what I am about to say {write} is both truthful and incredibly, shamefully, thoughtlessly horrendous. I know this, and I also know that I played an integral role in bringing about this plot’s completion. Of my own volition, I helped to implement the events that have now unfolded. I have to carry this burden now, to what will be my death, in what looks like a few moments time. But I did it, of course, because there was no other option. And to not do it, would accelerate our species’ true annihilation. When put in those terms, the coerced choice was actually very simple.

It doesn’t make the truth any easier to live with or speak about.

The truth is this: these vaults moved from long-term engines of survival — to brutal crucibles of violent competition meant to accelerate humanity’s evolution. At the behest of our new extra-terrestrial visitors-turned-overseer Gods, each of the vault leaders set things in motion to provide an environment in which from each vault there would be an implicit and explicit contest. A battle of wills would commence from the moment we closed things down from the surface world, within the vaults filled with the “survivors” of the world’s effective annihilation. The implicit contest would be in re-discovering our position down here, relative to the world up on the surface. The explicit contest would be the raging battle for survival against every other person within your vault. Once the truth was known, each vault would become every man for themself, every drop of blood spilt in the name of the most absolute motivation we have: survival.

Each person in each vault would be equipped with a sensor connected to their heartbeat, which in turn, was connected to their (the aliens) own central mainframe. The vault door up and into each vault above the one would open only when every single person’s heartbeat within a given vault went out —except for one. This is the core of the whole thing.

A couple of other requirements they had for this setup:

  • At the start, no one in the vault would know about any of this — the true purpose of the vaults, the sensors, the fact that there was no nuclear war, the presence of the aliens, etc. — save for one —the vault’s designer. (me, for this one vault #3,000). And that person that knew could not be the last one. If this requirement was violated, they would simply destroy the vaults with ease (presumably using their advanced weaponry.)
  • Any knowledge of the outside world’s state of affairs — such as the presence of aliens — was wiped from that person’s memory (more evidence of their advanced tech) — and replaced with vague memories of a nuclear war gone awry. The motivation for being in the vault, and having to survive amidst the others, would be well intact initially. This would create the necessary environment they wanted. From there, the eventual revelation of the truth of the vault dwellers’ true position would become a key component in the contest to determine who might emerge.
  • Each vault would be equipped with a variety of new ‘ingredients’ (as they put it), to make the task of the eventual massacre, or battle royale, or however this final person would go about ‘doing away’ (killing) with all of the other vault-dwellers, easier for them to carry out. The ingredients included well-hidden weaponry, bombs, poisons, etc.
  • Each survivor of each vault would then have to move up on through the other vaults, perhaps encountering other survivors in the midst of their own conquests, or well before the discovery of the vile conditions of their existence in these places. Their passage on up through each of the vaults and to the surface world would necessarily involve doing away with all but one of the populace within each vault. Essentially, if anyone wanted to escape and make it back up into the world, all of the vaults would have to be opened.

You can see that their complex game involved a rather ruthless test for humanity. To see who could first solve the answer (to the relatively unasked question) of what the true, hidden conditions of the vault were, and then go about using that knowledge in some way. Whether through guile or force or any number of other methods, someone or more than someone, could understand the truth of their position and then act on it or not. And these options for revelation include the one who knows the truth simply telling others about it. Such a thing wasn’t disallowed from me to do at any point after the initial stages of the vault experience. It wasn’t explicitly against the requirements they laid out (perhaps because it just added to the chaos of the whole thing, the whole experiment). I never did (until here at the end). I thought maybe we could simply exist like this forever, at least as long possible. Why have everyone die until it’s absolutely necessary? Such a dream lasted here for about 12 years.

Like I said, it’s all just abhorrent. And devastating to learn about. But I think ultimately we have to understand our position and then move forward. As a scientist, as a member of the human race, we can’t lie down in the face of our own extinction. We have to keep fighting. And yet, even as I type these words out, I am not sure I believe it. If we must do this to continue existing, then is it really worth it anymore?

I think I am running out of time. The last thing I’ll say concerns the why of all of this — on their end, that of the ET’s. I wasn’t supplied with this information from on high, although I can hazard a guess. They want to see what we’re made of. They wish to see which of us deserve to survive, avoid annihilation at their hand and rise up into the new world, joining them there. Or maybe those that make it to the surface in one piece will join them in their starships and will be able to take part in all of their future conquests. Who knows. All I know is that they beat us. And this, this panoptic hell that I helped create is perhaps the last bastion of human progress {I hope not!}. Whoever reads this, I want you to know that the hopes of the entire species rest upon your shoulders. Make all of this pain count somehow.

Signing off forever,

Dr. Mawn


The woman finished reading the message on the computer and sat in silence. She shook her head for many moments instead of thinking, instead of remembering. There was suddenly pain in her head and along her arm. She brought her hands to her face, covering it. She thought she might cry. Her whole body began to emanate with some kind of internal feeling; it felt like pain but she couldn’t be sure. Her mantras returned.

You have to be strong.

You have to keep going.

You have to survive!

A loud crashing sound from somewhere nearby within the complex broke the silently imploring declarations of her mind. The silence returned instantly, but the woman was already out the door and on the move. She followed the slight echo of the sound. The speed of her footfalls increased as she turned corners, through hallways, towards the sound. It was a ringing echo, as if a metal had struck another metal. It continued echoing, slowly dying. She ran through a threshold, towards a lighted corridor, and reached what she believed to be the source. The woman stopped in her tracks, peering about the room. The first thing she noticed was the smell; the place reeked of death. The second thing she noticed were all the bodies.

The floor before her was covered in bodies and blood. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen bodies, men and women, lay in various forms, all of them unified in stillness, in death. It was a more concentrated mass than she had seen anywhere else in the facility. The bright fluorescent lights shone down upon them, bathing their forms in an unnatural candor. Lifeless eyes stared up into them; resting faces lay down in bright and still-spreading pools of blood.

In a state of terror quickly turned to awe, the woman began to nevertheless step forward. She found herself in a large, circular room. As she moved from the outer ring of the room towards the center, the floor sunk down in three separate gradations. There was no discernible purpose for this. She walked down this slope with grace, no longer breathing heavily due to her sprint here.

In the center of the wide room, directly below a cylinder about a meter in diameter, stretching down from the already low ceiling, was a crowbar. It seemed to have fallen down from the cylinder, as it was clearly directly below it. The woman could tell it had made the noise because the ringing was still reverberating off of the walls. She worked her way across to the crowbar. It was important that she understand why it was here. She couldn’t help herself from inspecting her surroundings, the full scene of the room, with keen awareness of its implications. She especially noticed the state of the many bodies. The woman drew conclusions as she passed them all.

These people were killed more recently than any of the others.

Goosebumps ran up her spine all the way to her neck.

There was evidence of gunshots on the ground and on the walls. The blood spatters indicated either a high powered rifle was used, as well as a blade.

The woman analyzed the scene’s bodies trying to determine these facts, primarily in the hopes of surmising the assailant’s capabilities.

Given the new data she had gathered, she reflected on the fact that this scene should hold a certain, new kind of import to her. But in her haste, she found that wasn’t true right now.

The woman finally reached the crowbar. She looked down at it, and then bent down to pick it up. The solid, cool steel felt satisfying in her hand. She gripped with it resolve and looked up into the cylinder above.

The cylinder stretched up hundreds of meters. A ladder stretched up towards a distant dot of light. The woman looked up to it. Within the light she believed she could see a hand.

“Hello!” The woman called up.

The hand disappeared.

“Hurry up!” was the return, echoing all the way down the cylinder back to her.

The woman began to climb the ladder. ~