When a frightened child fears that monsters are lurking in the shadows of their bedroom they pull their covers over their head and cower, hoping that a layer of cloth will protect them from whatever unseen threats stalk the night. On October 23rd 2077 the nightmares became all too real when the Great War commenced. Blinding light ignited the sky, and people ducked and took cover as they had been taught, cowering under whatever they could, hoping that if they kept their eyes closed and remained still that the merciless flames would pass them by. They hid beneath desks at school, under cars on the street, and behind desks at work. Perhaps a few were in their beds when the flash appeared on the horizon and – perhaps they drew their blankets over their head like children, hoping that the searing pain was just a bad dream.
The ballyhooed tactic of Duck and Cover proved ineffective against armies that no longer cared about winning. Mutually self-assured destruction was the goal, and the American and Chinese exceeded it in spades. Hundreds of millions of people lost their lives within minutes, and billions more died over the days to come as radioactive fallout settled over entire continents. The fallout muddied the oceans, clouded the sky, and sunk deep into the soil.
Those who happened to be in the right place at the moment the bombs fell managed to survive. A well-timed spelunking vacation, a commute along the deepest subway tunnels, or the good fortune to live in a town in a place so remote that no one would ever think to bomb it. These “lucky” few formed the primitive tribal societies that struggled for survival in the years immediately following the war.
Hidden from those tribal bands were another group of survivors. Those who had been selected for Project Safehouse. One hundred thousand people fortunate enough to have been offered shelter inside impregnable survival shelters called Vaults, created by the Vault-tec corporation. The first vaults opened again a few years after the war and their inhabitants slowly spread throughout the wasteland. By now tales of the Vaults have spread from coast to coast, although not many people alive today have actually been inside one.
At the height of pre-war civilization, the government and a few powerful corporations knew that an apocalypse was brewing, so they used their finest technology to create vast subterranean bunkers that could withstand a nuclear blast, a meteor impact, global flooding or other likely disasters. The general public wasn’t entirely convinced that their end was nigh, otherwise there would have been a greater demand for Vaults. When the war started there were only about a hundred of them, scattered across America, and many held less than the thousand people they were intended to hold.
Those who were smart enough or lucky enough to be inside one when the end came were protected from the devastation by airtight steel doors, thick walls of concrete, and over 200 feet of soil. The fine engineers at Vault-tec designed their bunkers to run independently for ten years and even more. Geo-thermal power, hydroponic farms for growing food, and a water purification system so efficient Vault residents could fool themselves into thinking they weren’t drinking their own urine.
The designers made the Vaults as homey as possible despite the steel clad walls. The cafeterias were designed to look a little like roadside diners, and vault dwellers could close their eyes and imagine that they were eating a plate of Blamco mac & cheese and sipping a glass of Sunset Sarsaparilla out at Dot’s Diner.
Shiny new medical robots tended to those who suffered from mundane illnesses and injuries, while on the surface world billions died of radiation sickness, burns, starvation and violence. Housing wasn’t as spacious as on the surface, but there was plenty of room for several hundred people, and the vaults that held a full thousand or more could work out fair ways to share their bunks for a while.
Each vault was run by a leader called the Overseer who ran the underground community from a command center deep inside the complex. The Overseers were, usually, selected for their exceptional leadership skills, and the vaults had a security team to “keep the peace” using top of the line pre-war weaponry.
The Vaults were comfortable enough, but after ten years the radiation had gone down in most parts of the country, and the Vault Dwellers expected to head back up into the sunlight and begin rebuilding their flawed societies. Vault-tec had prepared them for anything that might await on the surface. The vaults had all the research material that they would need to rebuild America, including the entire library of Congress on holodisk, plus a hundred and one recipes on how to cook rats.
Those who have walked the wasteland know that the world isn’t a kind place. Sometimes people think of the pre-war days as a golden age. A time when people were better to each other. But there wouldn’t have been an apocalypse if that were true.
No- people were cruel and callous to each other even back then, and the folks who ran Vault-tec were no exception.
We’ve all heard of Vault City, a paradise built by the people who emerged from Vault 8, using a pre-war device called the Garden of Eden Creation Kit. They represent what the world could have been like if only Project Safehouse had been on the up and up. Unfortunately, Vault-tec had some ulterior motives, and vaults like Vault 8 were rare.
The poor fools who weathered the fallout in Vault-tecs nuclear shelters were the control groups in horrible experiments. Keep people nice and safe for ten years, then open up and build a new garden of Eden? That happened a few times out of a hundred vaults. Most vaults were designed to deliberately malfunction as part of an experiment to see just how far the human mind could be pushed before it snapped.
Unbeknownst to the vault dwellers, Vault-tec, and some elite factions of the government had their own shelters far away from the public vaults. These elite wanted to learn how to rebuild society by observing the inhabitants of the defective vaults. Some of the vaults were designed so that their inhabitants would be trapped in isolation for generations. Think ten years locked in a vault is a rough trip? Try eighty, or two hundred. There could even people still sealed inside hidden vaults that haven’t opened yet.
Other vaults had experiments that only a lunatic could conceive. A thousand men with only one woman. A thousand women with just one man. Or even one man trapped all alone in his own vault with nothing but a crate of puppets for company. One vault even seemed like it was designed as a personal playground for a sadistic Vault-tec employee who just wanted some poor souls to suffer forever in a virtual reality where he was a god in a world of his own making.
A few vaults were designed so that the inhabitants would almost certainly kill each other. Cram in twice as many people as the vaults were designed to hold and see how long it takes before someone kills his bunkmate just to get an even eight hours of sleep for once. Or, how about removing all of the television tapes, but overstocking the armory just to see how long it takes before “good-hearted and gentle people” find a way to amuse themselves.
You might be left wondering if the vault dwellers ever figured out what was happening to them. Did any of them learn that their lives meant nothing to Vault-tec, and that they had become no more than lab rats in a mad experiment? Maybe the inhabitants thought that their problems were accidental supply errors. Or maybe they realized what had happened and cursed Vault-tec with their dying breaths. In a few vaults the manipulations of Vault-tec were kept a secret by the Overseer, and the inhabitants endured their fate cheerfully, awaiting the day the doors would open and set them free.
Who knows if these experiments turned up any useful information for the sons of whores who devised them. But all the suffering wasn’t for nothing. Many vaults did open, even if later than expected. Some of the people who emerged went on to do great things for the wasteland. Heroes came from the vaults and put an end to the mysterious master of the Super Mutant army. Parts of what used to be the Capital of this land even has fresh water thanks to some helpful Vault Dwellers and technology scavenged from the old vaults.
Looters hoping to uncover riches in pre-war supplies should be wary of the Vaults, though. Project Safehouse has brought some troubles to the wasteland too. The Super Mutants, for instance, are connected to the corporation behind the vaults. In the West the mutants were made using ancient technology intended to create super-soldiers for wars that ended two hundred years ago. In the East there was a vault that burst open and unleashed an army of mutants into the surrounding lands, as though someone wanted that to happen. Just remember wanderer, it isn’t worth getting killed by mutants just because you heard about a stash of Fancy Lad snack cakes inside some old Vault’s pantry…
And mutants aren’t the only thing lurking in the vaults. There’s a whole city of ghouls who came from one of the vaults. Sometimes you’ll meet a ghoul who claims to have been alive back before the bombs fell. Don’t pay them no mind, unless their wearing a Vault 12 jump suit. Most of them have long since gone feral, but a few of them still remember the day they were selected to be part of Vaul-tec’s Project Safehouse, and they aren’t happy about it…
The idea of a piece of the old world sealed fresh is just too romantic an idea for some people to resist. Of course most wanderers have the sense to stay away from the vaults. If you really can’t help yourself though, there’s a city called New Vegas where people can get a look at the inside of a real live vault without having to worry about mutants, ghouls or old security bots. Right in the middle of the New Vegas strip is an old vault that they turned into a hotel so that travelers have some place to sleep while they waste their caps boozing, gambling and whoring. Tourists can even grab a Vault-tec lunchbox in mint condition, or a stylish vintage Vault 21 jumpsuit.
We don’t know how many vaults are still out there undiscovered. They’re hidden well, and Vault-tec liked keeping their secrets. Maybe a few of these unknown vaults still have people living inside, the descendants of that first group of survivors. Or maybe there’s a thriving society buried right under our feet that doesn’t even wonder what the outside world is like.
Sooner or later though, that door has to open. Even the fine makers of the Vaults couldn’t build a system that will contain humanity forever. And when those vault dwellers take their first steps out into the bright sunlight and feel the sands of the wasteland beneath their feet, they’ll find the world has changed a lot in two hundred years. It’s a big mean world, and their Overseer is small potatoes compared to some of the factions that run things now.
There are those who view the vaults as candy-shelled morsels filled with treats. Technology is nice, but the vaults held something even more precious – a pure gene pool uncontaminated by radiation, or exposure to virus-born mutagens. There are plenty of interested parties who want to get their hands on a fresh supply of pure strain humans who have yet to be exposed to the harsh wasteland.
But that- is a story for another day.