Early in the choke, we didn’t understand what was going on. Many of us were children then, catching snippets of a changing world from our parents. We would fear each coming day. Not just being afraid, as children are, but we were filled with a dread of a monster that we couldn’t even see. No one would tell us what was happening, so the spaces in our mind became filled with darkness, and twisting terror. Some of us came from Louisiana, and some of us had been there as the hurricanes raged, and filled our homes with water, each year worse than the last. Others, they lived in Kansas and saw the homes of their neighbours ripped to matchwood, each year worse than the last. The children of Los Angeles saw earthquakes, the children of Montana were buried in what seemed like a mile of snow. The Texan droughts, the crippling smog in the cities that would not abate. It’s a miracle of God that we survived to make it here at all.
Chester leaned back in his rocking chair, as the young children looked at him afraid, and the teenagers sat clasping their hands waiting for the world of the story to get better. He was never sure just how each new group would react, but he knew that history had to be preserved in more than just books. These children had never known the world outside this safe place, so they needed to know how it once was up there on the surface.
We were all travelling across the country, trying to find anywhere that was safe. Some of us came with families, others walked the roads alone. All they knew as they walked was that anywhere had to be better than where they came from. Disaster followed us, as the weeks dragged into months. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world was crumbling around us. But worry not, children, because the good Lord provided for us. It was here in Tennessee that we found our first shelter. Some cities here stood, filled with fine christians that welcomed us as wanderers from the desert. In those days people had started to turn bad, but there were some out there that would give an arm to give a fellow man another day. When we saw what they were building, we knew that we had to help. It began simply as a mine in its last days. They used to mine coal here. In the early days, it was their power here. Just enough coal to build great furnaces and smelters. They dragged what they needed from the earth to build rolling mills, and crucibles, and steel works. The Lord provided.
As they dug into the earth they made it strong, and hard, and able to support the roofs above us and the floors below us. We all worked tirelessly, as that was what the Lord sent us here to do. He gathered us, his chosen people, and told us that we could save ourselves with work. The great men in this room were the children that cleaned tools, and apprenticed, and learned from those that gave all of themselves to build this place. Our haven, our safety, our ark. You remember Genesis, children?
A silent chorus of nods rippled through the room. Children turned to each other, unafraid for the first time since Chester began talking.
Well, Noah built a great ark to save the animals, and to save mankind, and we did the same. But ours is in the ground, not the sea. Our hull is steel, not wood, and we decided to save more men and women. We couldn’t just save ourselves. The teacher in the back spoke up. She had heard the elders make speeches like this for years, and she knew Chester’s favourite verse.
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Chester smiled at her. Izabelle listened to him and the others like the children did; in love with the history of their people.
We must work together, children, as we did then. As we do now. Because 100 times the number of people in this room right now laid down their lives so that each of you could live. We gathered the great minds of our time that had no other place to go. The steelworkers gave us a home, the scientists showed us a better way forward, the engineers made sure that this structure would last for generations. It has stood now for 100 years, unmoved by the maelstrom above. Bad people may still walk the earth up there, but down here we are filled with the light of the Lord. As we have built ourselves a house, we have built him a house. You know the light in the church on Sundays? The one over the altar that issues from no bulbs? That’s the sunlight, far above, letting us know that we are not forgotten, we are protected and we are cared for. We must cherish that light, and we must all work towards the day when we open the hatches, and retake the earth in his name.
“Amen” a few children offered.
“Amen” Chester said emphatically.
“AMEN!” they shouted.
Chester raised his old bones from his chair and raised his hands high above his head.
“We give thanks to the Lord! Amen!”
The children stood and shrieked Amen with him, filled with pride in their people. They would save the world, like Chester saved them.
After an hour of questions, Izabelle ushered the children away, back to their classroom across the complex. Chester was full of fire, maybe more even than the pastors, but his voice grew hoarse, his eyes dropped, and he became lost in memory as his stories meandered. The more he talked, the more his thoughts connected, and formed a large web, trapping him inside.
He sat in the quiet, remembering the oldest days he knew. The things they had all seen, and they had all done to make it to this place, and to make this place. Inexperienced boys burned by hot steel and slag, arms lost to rolling mills and heavy presses. Some of the soldiers that came to protect them from raiders were boys themselves. Many could scarcely control the recoil of their father’s rifles. Not everyone that came here did so to be saved, some came to steal. They were exiled. They wouldn’t work, and so they were cast out to live with the heathens. If they were so interested in sin, they could find a world of it out there, growing in the dust, whirling in the winds, winding through the deepening waters. Idolaters came, with a worship of money, and tried to buy their way in. They were exiled. All the gold in the world couldn’t buy them a work ethic, or a strong pair of hands.
Not all were destined for salvation. Chester thanked the merciful God every day that he woke, and every day that he was given to keep spreading the word about this place to the children. That’s why they were here, that’s why they shunned people, that’s why they sacrificed and gave, in blood and in time. Miles from camp, he once came across a crucified raider boy, barely older than him. His corpse wore a sign warning only the righteous to step beyond his body. No riches, or goods, or snake tongued words would save a sinner walking towards the ark. Not even piety would save a godly man from pitching in. If you would not work, you would not be saved. For salvation was for all, not for a lone man that would eat their bread, and wash no pans, or pound no wheat, or knead no dough. The lazy were the worst sinners of all. They wished to partake of the kingdom without paying the tax.
Chester continued muttering to himself for an hour before he began to slow, and found himself drifting into a doze. The clocks said it was evening time. Most of the other elders had shuffled to their private mess hall. They were well taken care of in their old age. Any that had survived the time before they sealed their doors were treated most kindly by all. The children wished to hear their stories, the parents wanted their wisdom, the cooks and caretakers, the launderers and cleaners, they all considered it an honour to serve the elders. They honoured them as they would their own fathers and mothers. Chester fell into a sleep as the others ate. A plate of food was placed under a cloche, and set next to him. He would eat when he woke.
Ulricht watched the bank of monitors on the far side of the control room. Monitors flickered as they switched from one place to another. Some watched the mess halls, the generators, the hallways, the chapel, the common areas. But the top eight monitors never changed. They all looked outwards, in the cardinal directions above the hatches.
“When did they pass?” he asked Eric, the watcher.
“Four hours ago. We caught them passing two cameras, so they’re heading Northwest. Five, maybe six bikes, with perhaps ten riders between them. They didn’t come within 500 yards.”
“Any signs since then? No movement?”
Eric shook his head and stared down at his control panel. He knew the protocols that were in place. When someone saw raiders on the cameras, he may have signed their death warrants. But it had to be done to protect the people.
“Mobilize the soldiers. Have them wait by the northern hatch – inside. If we see so much as new tire track, they will exit and scout the area. Keep the blast doors sealed behind them until midnight. Lord willing there will be no more raiders out there.”