Here's my imagining of what happened in Vault 24. This is Part I. Part II will arrive this weekend. Links at the end for where you can follow the project, known as Fallout: Lone Exile.
3 DAYS UNTIL SELECTION!
They were all over the vault, hand-painted signs of things to come. I was just as excited as anyone else. Selection Day, woo hoo! When every sixteen-year-old kid in the vault would get a 50/50 shot at becoming a big deal—literally cool enough to wear a crown.
Of course, there was another side to that coin. A dark side.
For us, it was a tale as old as time. As old as the most senior living member in our vault, anyway—a wise, white-haired woman by the name of Elizabeth Morganthau, who at the age of eighty-two still remembered the alarms, the commotion, the widespread social panic that led to her and her wealthy parents being sealed inside our underground vault while the world was nuked to shit on the surface. Even then, when she was only seven years old, Elizabeth knew her life had completely transformed. She remembered, a year later, when the caps and the crowns began to be passed around, the Selection ceremony part of the new order.
From then on, there were Woollies and there were Regals. Everybody between the ages of sixteen to sixty-five was required to wear either a cap or a crown. But who had come up with the idea? No one really knew. Whispered rumors spoke of an experiment that had been designed before the vault's massive steel door ever opened to our segment of society. A few even whispered it was the original Overseer's plan to create a class of servants—a class which would never include his family, thanks to the influence he—supposedly!—held over the process.
But such talk was dangerous. It was against the law to discuss Selection as being anything other than an important social utility meant to bring balance to our tiny society, making sure all the chores and legislation and law enforcement were taken care of. Those caught breaking the law were exiled outside the vault, sent into the wasteland beyond the massive steel door.
And who enforced the law?
Out of each class of sixteen-year-olds, two to three of the strongest, fittest, and most ruthless were selected to be Coppers. It was a coveted job. You didn't have to wear a wool cap, nor would you get a crown, but you'd become part of a brotherhood of select individuals who slept, ate, and trained in a special part of the vault inaccessible to everyone else. You'd get the same rations as Regals and the work wasn't as dirty as what the Woollies had to go through, hunting radrats in the undertunnels and fixing leaky pipes and clogged drains.
No one fucked with Coppers. They were the only ones allowed to carry batons and wear Pip-Boys for stat monitoring. If Regals were stuck up assholes, Coppers were the bullies who kept their crowns in place.
"You're brooding again," Catherine whispered over to me.
We were sitting in class when the day finally came, waiting and watching as our teacher, Mrs. Hennerman, fiddled with a projector that didn't seem to want to take the latest How Does Radiation Work holotape she felt it necessary to show us, though we'd already been studying nuclear chemistry for a whole week. I knew more about radioactive decay than I would ever need to know, especially now that the war was over, the atom bombs no longer a threat to the world's dead surface.
"I'm just bored," I whispered back. "I want to it be over."
I nodded. "The waiting's bad enough."
"Quiet, please." Mrs. Hennerman flashed a sour look over her class of eight students, and we immediately silenced. There weren't many of us sixteen year olds this year. My three best friends, Eddie, Karen, and Tim, were there, along with my girlfriend, Catherine (though that was a secret, so shhh, don't tell her father, the Overseer) and finally, the remainder of my age group, Julia, Frank, and Louis—three of the biggest assholes in the history of the vault, who hated me and my friends for a variety of reasons. They hated Eddie because he was brown-skinned and (they felt) deserved to wear a wool cap from the start; Karen because she wore her hair cropped short and had never been interested in boys; and me because I was particularly close with Catherine, easily the prettiest among all the teenage girls, in addition to having the privilege of being the Overseer's little girl and only child.
Frank glared at me from his chair next to the projector.
"Maybe if Will would stop flirting with his girlfriend, we could all get some work done."
"She's not my girlfriend."
I always said that, and Catherine understood why. Her father didn't allow her to date. At eighteen, a husband would be chosen for her. There were already several potentials—suitors just waiting for the Overseer's blessing. But no one had had the guts to ask Catherine out since she'd been a young girl. I did it when we were both thirteen, taking her down to the stuffy room which held the massive vault door, a blanket and some food already laid out picnic-style. We spent the evening talking about the world beyond the door, and when she started to cry just thinking about it, I reached over and pecked her on the cheek. We'd been close ever since—closer than her father would allow if he knew. We were close enough that I couldn't imagine life without her.
When class was over, everyone filed out for lunch. It would be our last meal together in the cafeteria. After the selection process, roughly half of us would don a wool cap and start taking meals in the Woolly Quarter on one side of the vault. The other half would slip on a crown made from an aluminum-copper alloy and begin taking meals in the Regal Quarter on the opposite side.
"Ready to slip on that wool cap, Willy?" Frank asked me, setting his tray down across from Catherine and I. "Willy. Woolly. Your name even sounds low class. I think it's fate."
"Frankly," I said, a lame attempt to make fun of his name like he'd done mine, "I think you're the one who's gonna be shining my Pip-Boy."
"What? You think you'll make Copper? Maybe in another life, but I know something you don't."
"What's that?" I asked, frowning at him.
He spoke around a mouthful of food. "Nothing, lover boy. I never saw nothing, I swear."
Taking a moment to grin at me, his teeth spotted orange with mashed carrot, he picked up his tray and went to rejoin his friends.
Catherine was sitting to my right, Eddie, Karen, and Tim taking up other spots at my table. Karen shook her head, staring at me.
"Don't make a scene," she warned. "Not today."
Eddie and Tim looked up for a comic book they'd both been reading. Eddie had found it in the library, snug between two science textbooks. Some action-packed story about a man in a metal robot suit.
"Whatever happens," Eddie said, "we stick together. No stupid hat is going to come between us, am I right?"
"You are correct," Tim said in his typically emotionless voice. There was a running joke that Tim's parents—both engineers who looked after the vault's heating and ventilation system—had left him all by himself in his crib for the first few years of his life with only a calculator for company, which would explain his odd style of social interaction and his gift with mathematics.
"Hey." Catherine covertly rubbed my thigh with her knuckles. "It'll be okay. We'll be fine."
"Easy for you to say." Karen winked at her. "Lady Radcliffe."
Catherine rolled her eyes. She hated the nickname. There were those—like Karen—who believed the Selection process was secretly rigged. It made sense. Not once, in seventy-five years of Vault 24 being in existence, under the watch of five different Overseers, had an Overseer's daughter been forced to wear the wool cap. Out of four sons, one had done so, but people like Karen believed it had been intentional, to divert suspicion. The other three sons had ended up as Coppers.
But the daughters? No way. Out of eight daughters, the full eight had been selected to join the Regal class. Eight different flips of the coin, a 50/50 shot each, and not a single one ever ended up wearing a wool cap. Tim claimed it was statistically unlikely—"There was a better chance the vault would collapse in on itself due to an earthquake than to have eight coin flips come out the same"—but it wasn't like anyone could prove it. And if they tried, they could look forward to years of being on the Overseer's shit list. Not a position anyone desired. Not in a community as small as this one.
Selection Day took place, as always, in the auditorium. All four hundred and sixty eight souls crammed inside, almost half of Vault 24's residents forced to take up standing positions against the walls and in the back. The room was enormous, but it wasn't that big. It had never been built to accommodate the entire population of a vault. Within minutes, the room was stuffy as hell and the faint reek of unwashed bodies fell upon the audience like a shroud.
They were all watching one man.
"Thank you all for coming," Overseer Radcliffe said, standing at his podium. "I know it's hot in here, so I'll try and make this a quick one. We only have eight candidates this year, after all. No need to extend the ceremony any longer than necessary."
"Right," I whispered over to Karen. "Not like our lives hang in the balance or anything."
"Exactly," she whispered back.
We were all sitting in foldable chairs in front, facing the audience. Catherine sat next to Julia, on the complete opposite end from where I sat. She'd been placed there by her father. An ominous sign, though I wasn't sure why it struck me that way.
"I hear being a Woolly isn't so bad," Tim said. "You get a lot of privacy, and the undertunnels are nice and dark and quiet."
"You engineer types would love that," Karen said. "But I don't want to have to hunt radrats, eat radrats, and find radrats gnawing on my leg, for the rest of my life."
"Will you guys shut up?" Frank whispered harshly at us.
I wanted to punch him in the face. As much as I hated to admit it, if Frank ended up a Woolly and I a Regal, I would definitely make his life a living hell. The temptation would be too enticing. After years of being bullied by this asshole, I wanted some excuse to look down my nose at him, shove him around, force him to run errands for me.
"And now we begin," the Overseer said, turning to face the Decider—really just a fancy name for the old guy who flipped the coin. His name was Simon Reynolds, and he often performed magic tricks at our birthday parties. Simon readied the ceremonial coin—a large silver dollar the Overseer kept locked in his desk—according to Catherine, anyway.
"Karen Schillings," the Overseer announced.
Taking a deep breath, Karen stood and approached the Overseer and the Decider, her fate suddenly in question. I could tell she was shivering.
"Flip," the Overseer said.
Simon waved his hands around, as if performing a magic trick, and flipped the coin through the air. It caught the light, glinting as it turned. The auditorium was dead silent. You could hear the thud of the heavy silver dollar smacking Simon's palm before he slapped it down against his other hand.
"Heads," Simon announced. "Regal!"
The auditorium exploded in a round of applause. Beaming, Karen glanced back at Catherine and I, then turned to face the audience. She even raised her arms, swept up by their adoration. She received her gold-colored crown from the Overseer, who slipped it on her head as though she'd just been named Queen of the entire ceremony. When she turned to glance at us again, I saw tears in her eyes. As the audience applauded, Karen made her way to one side of the auditorium, where a bunch of crowned Regals sat on benches.
Next came Louis Dabrowski, best friend to my nemesis. Honestly, I didn't have much of a problem with Louis, except for the fact that he hung around Frank and laughed at all his dumb jokes.
The audience cheered and clapped again, but this time it sounded more supportive than congratulatory. Shoulders slumped, Louis received his charcoal-gray cap from a box full of wool caps. He slipped it over his head and joined a bunch of Woolly teens standing against the wall opposite the Regal teens Karen had joined.
Looking more meek than usual, Julia rose slowly from her chair and approached. The coin was flipped and her fate was decided.
"Aw, shit," she muttered, receiving her wool cap and aggressively pulling it around her head before joining Louis and the other Woolies.
Then it was Catherine's turn. I was too busy watching Simon Reynolds to notice the look on her face. Had the Decider just slipped a hand quickly into his pants pocket? He had fidgeted for a moment there—or was it my imagination?
The coin flipped.
"Heads," Simon announced. "Regal!"
The Overseer nodded his approval at Simon, then smiled proudly at Catherine. She embraced her father, received her crown, and glanced hopefully at me before joining the band of Regals sitting on benches in the audience.
"Frank Ramirez," the Overseer called.
Frank glanced back at me, one corner of his lips turned up in a smile. Like he knew something I didn't.
He even winked at me.
"Come up here, son," the Overseer said, and waved him forward. He put a hand on Frank's shoulder and addressed the audience. We all knew what was coming next. "There won't be a coin flip for this fortunate young man. I'm proud to announce that tonight Frank Ramirez will be joining a small, elite group of trainees at the Liberty 24 Police Academy!"
The audience roared their approval. Frank even received a standing ovation.
"Fuck me sideways," I said, my voice drowned by the noise.
But how had he known? That wink had told me everything—that somehow Frank had known he'd been accepted. We had all put in applications, but it wasn't until this moment that applicants were supposed to know what would become of them.
It might've had something to do with his father, who served in the Overseer's office as Head Legislator. Basically, his job was to dream up laws everyone else had to follow. But it was an important job that many aspired to. It was also a job with many privileges and connections. Had Frank's father illegally used his influence to get his son accepted?
The Overseer clapped along with the audience. He gave Frank a double thumbs up, while Frank raised both arms and pumped his fists.
I clenched my teeth in hatred.
Finally, it was my turn.
"Will Lowenstein," the Overseer said, and suddenly his face looked sour.
What the hell?
My stomach withered under that look. For years, I'd experienced a recurring nightmare in which Overseer Radcliffe was leading me into the undertunnels, his back to me the entire time, completely silent. It had something to do with Catherine, his daughter, his little girl. I don't know how I knew that, but I was sure of it. However, not once—never in the dozen or so times I'd experienced the dream—did I find out why Radcliffe was leading me into those dark depths or what he intended to do to me, but I always woke up shivering, that surreal darkness coating my skin like freezing oil.
I glanced at Simon again. He seemed to fidget, very quickly, his hands darting about like mice.
And then it hit me—a double-sided coin. Maybe that was how they did it. Two coins—one with heads on both sides, the other with dual-sided tails. So they could choose which of the two fates. Simon Reynolds was a magician, after all. He was good at misdirection.
Before I knew it, the coin was flipping through the air, tossing off sharp glints of light, like a razor blade, and then it disappeared inside Simon Reynold's knobby old hands.
He separated his hands and examined the coin.
"Tails," he said. "Woolly!"
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