When someone used to tell me a secret, I’d say that I was putting that information in “the Vault”. If only my mind was so secure. It feels more like a container with a slow leak, and I am powerless to stop it.
“Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses. It merely marches forward.” Who was it that said that? I guess I’ll never know.
It’s been almost five years since I’ve had access to the internet, or a book, and another ten since I was in college. I didn’t realize how much I had come to depend on the internet as another brain, like an external hard drive that I could access at will.
In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time in college studying and less time partying. I wish I had made an effort to learn things outside of what was necessary for day-to-day life. Of course, if I had known the world was going to end, there are a lot of things I would have done differently.
But here I am now, in the Vault. Saved by sheer dumb luck, I am now serving what amounts to a life sentence without possibility for parole. If I had paid better attention in science classes, I could probably tell you how long it would take for the radiation to clear, but again hindsight is my enemy.
Enemy. Enemy. Know your enemy. Sun Tzu (is that how you spell it?). The Art of War. I better write it down before I forget.
These last five years have been just like that, a blur of free association and cramped hands. Being the last (adult) person is a burden that can’t be expressed in words. Well, I guess there are maybe words out there that would be appropriate, but I don’t know what they are, and I never will, unless they surface from deep within my subconscious.
That subconscious is a tricky thing. I once sat for an hour trying to remember that one President who was assassinated. I only remembered his name randomly some time later when contemplating how I used to hate Mondays, back when the days of the week actually meant anything. And now I am thinking about how I’ll never have lasagna again.
And that’s more or less how I’ve spent all of my free time, when I’m not tending to the plants, tinkering with machines, and teaching the kids. Sure, the automatons do a majority of the work, but I feel like everything needs the “human touch,” so I tried to be as involved as possible.
Besides, sitting around trying to remember things all day is very tedious. It is for a good cause, of course. Probably. The entirety of all the knowledge of mankind since the dawn of time now rests on my shoulders. No pressure, right?
I didn’t exactly ask to be in this position. I mean, I guess I technically did request the assignment, but things took a weird turn. And I want to stress that this was not my fault.
Long before this mess all started, there was this thing called the Global Seed Vault that was up there near Sweden or something. Somewhere cold. It was meant to preserve seeds from every kind of plant in case they went extinct and needed to be brought back.
This was supposed to be like that, only holding a different kind of seed (pun very much intended). It was built underground at a location was chosen not for the temperature, but due to global politics and the major amount of convenient geothermal energy there. The official name was – I don’t quite remember, but they shoehorned a cute acronym onto it. Anyway, everyone just called it the Vault.
It was meant to ensure the survival of the human race in the event of a global catastrophe, natural or otherwise. They held a lottery from people all around the world to ensure the diversity of the species. They also took the genetic material from the best and brightest in the areas of science, music, art, and business. The material was tested for defects so that no inheritable diseases would make it into the new world.
Things were looking good for the project. It had broad appeal from around the world. Major corporations donated resources and technology just for the honor of taking part. The Vault was outfitted with the best in renewable energy, robotics, hydroponics, and cryogenics. It was built to withstand the worst humanity could do to itself.
The Vault could keep a small but stable population going indefinitely. In addition to having huge water and food reserves, it could recycle waste, harvest the plants, and even grow the embryos in the artificial wombs, all done automatically with little human input.
And it was all set to include a digital archive filled with the works of literature from every language and corner of the world, textbooks on any topic you could want, encyclopedias, music, television shows, movies – basically everything you would need to propagate the sum of human culture into perpetuity. And it was my job to install it. I know on the surface this looks bad, but again, I swear it’s not my fault.
Yes, I did technically break in to the Vault when I wasn’t supposed to be there, but that’s beside the point. In fact, if I hadn’t broken in, the archive wouldn’t have been installed regardless. I would be dead, and the embryos would just be sitting there indefinitely with no one to get things going.
So it all started when I left home to buy a pack of cigarettes. Cigarettes were … a kind of special treat. My wife wasn’t crazy about how often I had been “treating” myself, but she understood the immense pressure I was under at work trying to get the Vault completed. Everything was up and running, including the cryo storage of the embryos, but we were having trouble getting the archive to work. It seemed to be a hardware issue, and every time we tried to hook it up, the server got fried, and all the data was lost.
It had been another long day of trying to fix things. We had just finished dinner, and my wife watched our son while I stepped out. Upon my arrival at the corner gas station, however, I realized my wallet was missing. After mentally retracing my steps, I realized I had left it at work. In the Vault.
Normally, I would just forget about it, but I really needed a cigarette. The latest archive server was all set and in place, but we didn’t want to hook it up until we were sure it wouldn’t get fried. For some reason, my boss kept insisting that this was somehow my fault. I was worried I was going to get canned.
This put me under a lot of pressure, and I was definitely not thinking clearly. So, I did something kind of stupid. I decided to break in to the Vault to get my wallet. I wouldn’t have to bust in like a burglar, but no one was allowed in after hours.
Now, the obvious question here is why I decided to do that instead of going back home and getting money from my wife. I would like to say that this was a rational decision based on the fact that she probably didn’t have cash on her, and I needed my wallet anyway, but the truth of the matter was that I was stressed, tired, and just not really in my right mind. I guess it all worked out in the end (for me at least).
It was a short drive over to the facility. I was expecting to have to park outside the gate and jump over the fence, but surprisingly, the gate was open, so I was able to just drive in and park. I thought I was going to have to talk my way past the guard at the security door, but there was no one there. That was definitely odd.
I let myself in and made my way in to the Vault entrance proper. The Vault seal would close automatically in the event of a pending nuclear attack, but otherwise it always remained open. As I entered, I heard noises coming from the Server room nearby. I crept silently along the wall and peeked my head in.
Standing over the archive server was my boss. I was so shocked to see him that without thinking, I called out to him and asked him what he was doing. He whirled around to look at me, and I could see a hammer in his hand. His face had a guilty look like he had gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
He tried to play it off like he had come in after-hours to try to get things finished, but once I took a couple of steps toward him I could see that something was seriously wrong. The server itself looked intact, but where it was supposed to connect to was a mess. The metal frame had been ripped apart, with several jagged pieces sticking out, and there were internal components that had been smashed. The shock must have been obvious on my face, because that’s when he lunged towards me.
I tried to dodge out of the way, but he was too quick. I barely had time to throw my off-hand up at the last second to shield my head from the hammer. I felt a crushing pain in my forearm, and everything went blurry. My vision quickly cleared, only to see him raising his arm to strike another blow. I ducked my head down and rammed the shoulder of my non-injured arm into his chest. This threw him off-balance enough to give me an opening. I kneed him in the groin as hard as I could, causing him to drop the hammer next to the metal frame.
We both dove to the ground, but he got his hands on the hammer first. Before he could move, I grabbed it using my good arm and tried to wrench it from his grasp. We pulled on it back and forth for a brief moment, but my one arm was no match for his two. He pulled it from my hand, and I fell flat on my back.
And then with another strike, I felt my ankle being crushed. The pain was so great I blacked out for a few seconds. The first thing I saw when I came to was him leaping on top of me to finish the job. Out of pure instinct, I brought up my good arm and leg and used his momentum to flip him over my head. I heard a sickening crunch and a gasp.
I propped myself on my hand and turned around. He had landed on one of the jagged pieces of metal that had been ripped from the base of the frame. It was sticking out of his chest. He was wheezing, and a cough sprayed blood out of his mouth.
I took a second to catch my breath, and I pulled myself up to face him. As the adrenaline started to wear off, I realized what had been going on these past months, but I couldn’t fathom why he would do it. Why on earth would he want to sabotage the archive? So I asked him.
Between labored breaths, he told me, “The children need to know the truth, not these lies.” I wanted to ask him what he meant, but before I could reply, a loud siren started blaring, and I felt a low rumble coming from the direction of the Vault opening.
I started to limp out of the room to see what was going on, but a raspy laugh behind me froze me in my place.
“It’s too late. I may not fulfill my role as the Messenger, but my compatriots have not failed. This world will burn.” He said it with such hatred. I always thought my boss was a little odd, but I could hardly believe it was the same person I had been working with all this time. I looked back at him just in time to see his chest stop heaving and his eyes glaze over.
I turned back around and slowly dragged my useless leg along out of the room. I approached the Vault opening in time to see the seal lock into place. That didn’t make sense. I only had a moment to consider the ramifications of what this could mean before it felt like the whole world rocked around me.
I was thrown from my feet and hit my head against the handrail on the way down. I found myself once again on my back. I thought I had blacked out again too, but the lights flickered back on as the Vault’s generators kicked in.
It took all of the mental fortitude I had not to lose it in that moment. I tried not to think about what might or might not have happened. I needed to keep it together long enough to get to the Communications room. I could find some answers there.
I slowly and painfully pulled myself up. There was a sharp pain on the side of my head. I touched the spot where it had hit the handrail, and my hand came back with the warm stickiness of blood. I felt like I was going to vomit.
I knew if I was going to figure out what was going on, I was going to have to get moving. I shuffled along the corridor, using the handrail to steady myself and keep from collapsing on the ground.
While the Server room was conveniently located near the entrance, the Comm room was unfortunately several floors down. The elevator would do the hardest part for me, but it was still a long walk there, and once on the correct floor, a long walk to where I was going.
I tried my hardest not to think about anything. Not about the pain in my body, not about seeing someone die in front of me, not about what could have prompted the Vault door to seal. I instead focused on dragging myself along. I focused on staying upright.
Looking back, that whole walk is now nothing but a blur, but at the time it seemed like an eternity. Broken and exhausted, I finally reached the door to the Comm room. I turned the handle and opened the door. I had only been in the room once prior, and that was before any of the equipment had been installed. I am pretty technologically inclined, but now just looking at all the equipment there made me feel a little overwhelmed.
I decided to start with the easiest and most familiar device. I walked over to the television monitor, which was hooked up to a powerful underground antenna, and turned it on. Any broadcast channels for at least a hundred miles should have come through, but there was nothing but static.
So I tried the next best thing, the radio. No matter how I tuned it, again just static. Phone line dead, too. I turned on the ham radio and played around with it, but I had only seen one used in movies. I’m pretty sure I was using it correctly, but still all I got was static.
That was not a good sign. The local radio, phone, and TV could be out for a number of reasons, but from my understanding the ham radio should still have worked. It wasn’t dependent on any local towers. That meant that there must have been some serious interference.
I remembered someone mentioning a hard line set up to ensure the continuity of government operations in the event of a catastrophe. I just didn’t know what form that would take. I looked around the room and found a computer terminal that seemed a likely candidate.
I booted it up and breathed a sigh of relief when it wasn’t password-protected. After fiddling with some of the settings, I was able to connect to the network. There were other sites already online and hoping someone was able to make it into the Vault before it sealed.
Things were worse than I had feared. Several cities, including the one above me, had been the victim of a coordinated nuclear attack. Everyone I knew and loved, gone in an instant. Suddenly, the weight of all the events of the last hour finally hit me. I collapsed on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably.
When I finally put myself back together, I reached out to the others on the network for more information. The remnants of the government were still trying to piece together who did it and why, but they were promising swift retribution with “a proportional response”.
With the destruction and radiation above me, I was stuck here until they could figure a way to get me out. At least, that was the thought, until things got much, much worse. Over the coming weeks, tensions rose as the government pointed fingers at all of the usual suspects.
There was talk about striking back at a number of countries and groups, but before we actually did anything about it, one of them decided it was better to strike first. That’s when everything descended into chaos.
Long-held alliances broke, with every country looking out for their own interests. The nuclear powers started utilizing their arsenals, each one in turn gambling that no one else after them would risk using another nuke, like history’s shittiest game of “hot potato”.
As things got worse, the other sites on the network one-by-one started to disconnect suddenly. They were supposed to be safe from nuclear attacks, but a determined strike team could get through.
In the first days after the strike, the others on the network had walked me through treating my injuries, including what was likely a concussion. Now, with it becoming clear that the outside world would not survive the chaos and destruction, I received instructions on ensuring the Vault was ready to perform its duty. Fortunately, everything was designed to be idiot-proof and work more or less automatically.
Before the last site went offline, they gave me final instructions on removing the embryos from cryo storage and activating the artificial wombs. They advised me to start off small, with just two boys and two girls. And then they entrusted the future of mankind into my hands.
And so the human race will survive, but on my terms. The kids are already talking and just beginning to learn how to read and write. I am preparing for them to take over and raise the future generations once I am gone. Obviously, as part of that, I want them to have access to all of the information contained in the archive.
It’s still sitting there in the Server room, not connected and not touched, since that night. It seems to be completely intact, but the system it was supposed to be installed into was smashed into pieces.
A couple of years back, I fixed things up as best I could, but I have never attempted to actually hook it up. The previous sabotages fried the whole system as soon as things were connected, so I may only get one shot to get it right.
It took me almost a year recreating the plans from memory and repairing things to the best of my ability. I took extra care, but who knows if it will work? In my downtime, I started writing down all of the things I could remember that were important to me, that wouldn’t be there in the archive – stories about my life, my wife, my son.
Once that well ran dry, I decided to write down other things in case I failed at repairing the archive, from the sacred to the mundane, detailing anything that could be of use to future generations, and many things that I knew wouldn’t be but I felt still needed to be preserved.
Then one day, I had finished all I could on the archive. I stood there in the Server room, but I couldn’t bring myself to activate it. I kept putting it off, setting arbitrary milestones that I would just blow by. I would make excuses and justifications for no one but myself. After a while, I became more afraid that it would work than it wouldn’t. Afraid that all of my work would be for nothing. So I kept on writing.
And just like that, five years had passed in the blink of an eye. I now have piles of notebooks just like this one filled with my near-illegible scrawl, and I don’t know if they’ll ever be used. But I have pushed through, day by day, searching every little nook and cranny in my mind for a new scrap of information.
It’s getting harder and harder. I feel like I’m running out of things to write, and the details are getting fuzzier. Memory fades, and the things I have lost may be gone forever. Every time this happens, it feels like a small piece of me dies.
My 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Palmer, said that life could be described as a series of epiphanies, where you are constantly learning or discovering something new about life. He also described these epiphanies as losses of innocence. You gain new insight into how the world works, but it comes at a cost. Your old world view dies to make way for the new one.
In a way, everything that has happened has been this on a grand scale. The old world has died, and it’s being replaced by a new one.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this, and I think I finally understand what my boss was trying to accomplish. I can think of a number of terror groups and cults that would want to reshape the world in their own image and would be willing to go to great lengths to accomplish it. Even if it meant instigating the end of the world. But they didn’t account for me and my dumb luck.
The cruel irony, of course, is that I have spent years dealing with the temptation to do what they tried to. Should I whitewash history? Make it more palatable? Do I erase the existence of religions and beliefs that I disagree with? The future of the world rests not just on my memory, but my character. I am in a position of unparalleled power and influence. My word is the gospel truth, and I can change history to suit my whims.
But every time I feel tempted to change things, I think back to what got me into this mess. I don’t want to be like them. The truth is not subjective, and I don’t have a right to try to cover it up. “The truth shall set you free,” and all that. That was from the Bible, right?
I hardly ever feel tempted to change things anymore, but that might just be because my writing has slowed to a crawl. I’m tired of all of this, and my work is seeing diminishing returns. The kids are getting older, and I’d rather spend my time with them. The things I’ve written down for them will be useful for the future, but it will be for nothing if I don’t teach them to be decent human beings. Otherwise it will be just a matter of time before society breaks down again.
I think I’m finally ready to connect the archive server. If I can give the future generations a better chance to survive, who am I to let my pride get in the way? And if I fail, what’s the worst that could happen? I’ve already seen the end of the world.
• PALADIN 769: The River and the Wizard-Knight
• The Trump impeachment inquiry is underway
• Donald Trump tells congresswomen to go back
• What's the first major news story you remember?