Life in a nuclear shelter is hard. It's weird. I imagine it's similar to how people used to live on ocean-going ships for months on end, or people living in remote mining towns back when. There's hundreds of us here, but it's such a small community you just know everybody, whether you want to or not. I grew up here, I've never known anything other than the metal walls and the tunnels carved into the mountain. The bombs fell 46 years ago and I've learned everything I know about it from the older people in here and videos left over from that time.
The computer systems we viewed them on are starting to fail, as are many of the systems intended to keep us alive. Engineering says that they'll be able to keep things running though, so no worries. But we worry. I'm in engineering as well -- always been handy with a spanner -- but my heart's not really into it. The problem down here, however, is that there's a very limited amount of jobs we actually need done, and engineering is the most important department. Sure, there's hairdressers, doctors, bakers, cooks, all those important jobs. But if your 'town' is only 300 people, how many bakers do you really need? In our case? 4. Hairdressers? 6, and only because some people don't get along with other people.
So about a quarter of us work in engineering. Arts aren't deemed important, though as a hobby it's really prevalent. There's theater, movie making, music, painting, all kinds of stuff. But in this society, it's about how you can help keeping other people alive. Not happy, just alive. And with the air filters constantly needing replacement, the average age isn't what it used to be either.
The shelter was built by the government in the 1960s and was upgraded from time to time until the 90s, when the Cold War ended. Interest in and fear of nuclear disaster waned as the world settled into a state of calm. There were wars, sure, but they were at a far smaller scale than either of the world wars and had mostly stayed 'local'. But something happened in the 2010s. Skirmishes and conflicts started to erupt in areas where there had been peace -- or at least a semblance of peace -- for over 50 years. In Asia, a hermit kingdom started experimenting with nuclear weapons everybody was convinced they wouldn't be able to create. The middle east had become a war zone completely outside of the 'Middle East Conflict' people had been trying to fix for decades before that, with Syria at the middle of it all. And all over the world, people were cultivating hatred towards groups that were different from their own. As a result, domestic terrorism grew to a size nobody knew how to deal with.
The world was slowly coming to a boil, and because it was happening all over the world, in different situations, with different players, it was seemingly very difficult to put a stop to it.
And then, and to this day nobody knows where it came from, the bomb fell. And as a result, more bombs were launched.
That was the last direct piece of history we know. This shelter has communication systems in place, to communicate with other shelters like this, but we found very quickly that after 20 years of disinterest, they were no longer functional. Analog systems in a digital world, one of my engineering mentors mused.
My parents were among the people selected to be housed in this shelter. Not so much selected as available and near, since they took the place of others who were selected but not near. I guess we were lucky in that sense. Especially since the history lessons say a bomb went off a few miles from here.
And I've been in here for 17 years, all of my years. And I'm going insane. My parents are both dying. They took radiation before coming into the shelter and were now suffering the effects of it. But I've seen others, some who were born here before me, and I see similar symptoms show up far earlier than them.
I'm pretty convinced that due to the initial radiation, this entire crop of people is ruined. Genetics are a funny thing. And with the filters what they are, I'm also pretty convinced the situation is getting worse rather than better.
I've been talking to some friends of mine who feel the same. And at one point, one of them, Anna, said something that wouldn't get out of my head afterwards.
"So we're stuck in here because the old peeps thought it'd be safe, but it isn't. We know there's a whole world out there but we've never seen it for ourselves. I would rather go out there and see it before I die than spend another 10 years down here only to die within these fucking walls."
And she was right.
So we decided to do something about it. We decided to leave.
Since we all worked in engineering, we knew how the shelter's airlock worked. We also knew the schedules and how to make sure we were all on duty around there at the same time. We didn't say goodbye to anyone, since we knew they would all be too afraid to even consider doing something like this. And even if they did and kept our secret, we didn't want to cause them any trouble should they be grilled about it later.
The plan was planned out over months and when it came to actually doing it, it was exciting but not much of a challenge.
As we stood in the airlock, waiting for the diagnostics to finish, we nodded at each other. One last verification that we were all okay with this, that this is what we wanted.
The diagnostics pinged to notify us that they were done. The outer airlock doors started to move, encrusted dust falling off it where gears were turning.
The light outside was extremely bright and we all covered our eyes. We'd never considered that we'd been living in artificial light all our lives, on power-saving mode. By the time we could actually look, the doors had fully opened and we could see outside.
I'd never seen that much green in one place. I'd seen paintings of the outside, photographs and videos. But the vibrant colors were like something out of this world. Some of us teared up, that's how overwhelming it was.
The air smelled crisp and fresh. In the distance, we could see birds playing in the air. Another thing we'd only ever seen on a canvas or a screen.
Our engineering suits had geiger counters built in, and we hadn't remembered that until they started clicking. We hadn't moved, but the radiation had moved into the airlock.
But the rate at which they clicked was far below what we'd expected and accepted as a risk.
"Is this... Is this it?" I said.
"What do you mean?" someone responded.
"The radiation. This level is only a little higher than at the upper levels of the shelter."
"Hmm, you're right. Wait, didn't they say a bomb fell a few miles from here?" Anna said.
"Yes, but maybe it was smaller than they thought? What if..." and I stopped.
I set my geiger counter to record.
"Set your counters to record too. Let's walk around."
We all did so, taking in the environment as much as we could. Recording the radiation in the immediate surroundings would allow us to compile a lot of different data sets. We could map out hot pockets if there were any, we could come to an average radiation level. We could compare it to inside the shelter. We could, if the results were good, convince the others that we didn't have to stay in the shelter anymore.
"Wow," I heard from a distance. It was the kind of wow you can't suppress. Not supposed to be heard by anyone else, just a wow that escapes because it has to.
It came from Anna, who was standing on top of a hill on the side of the road towards the shelter entrance. We all went up there to see what she was seeing.
And some of us fell silent, mouth half-open, while others of us let a wow escape.
In the distance, we could see a city. And highways. The city was not destroyed and neither was the highway.
And both of them were in active use.
"I think that's all the proof we need."