Saturday, August 4, 2012

Outside-In: A DayZ Short Story

Pre-story disclaimer: I have not actually played DayZ; 90% of what I know came from watching gameplay videos on YouTube. The other 10% from a visit to

Outside-in: A DayZ Short Story
by: Paul M. King (2144 words)

The name popped up in the news a few weeks ago because of an epidemic or some kind of disaster - a lot people thought it had to be something nuclear, mainly because the name of the country sounded a lot like ‘Chernobyl.’ The level of international concern was about the same as one of those African countries that are constantly in grip of a severe famine or civil war - We feel bad that something terrible is happening, but there’s not a lot anybody is going to do to help a poor country with no oil and little potential as a tourist destination. It didn’t help that hardly anyone could find the place on a map; I knew it was somewhere along Russia’s eastern shore - on the Sea of something-or-other - but that’s about it; more than most people could tell you, I’d wager.
Eventually, the news moved on to other more interesting stories - another politician got caught cheating, a celebrity couple was splitting up, it was really hot today - and we forgot about Chernarus.

A couple of weeks passed; the only news I can recall from that distant corner of the world was about some military exercises the Russian navy was conducting that raised eyebrows in some of the Asian countries, but nothing came of it. I had other things on my mind; I was finally made full-time at the firm where I’d been doing my best to scrape by on 30-hour work weeks for nearly a year. Have you ever contemplated a memory, only to realize that you don’t really remember doing whatever you were doing when your brain absorbed the information - like it just sort of took root in your mind by itself? The human brain is funny that way.
Anyway, to help make ends meet as a part-timer, I took on a number of freelance projects. The last project I would need to take as a freelancer was for a non-profit organization with international ties. The request was for an online database with both an internal and external interface to track the need for humanitarian aid in third-world countries, places that this organization would then try to raise funds for aid and medical mission work.
At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, working for non-profits is usually a pain. They tend to have very limited resources, but require a high level of functionality combined with an equally high-level of abstraction in their online applications. But, a paycheck is a paycheck and the landlord doesn’t care where the money comes from, just that he gets his share of it by the end of the month.
To my surprise, the client was very easy to work with, they even loved the first design revision I submitted - that hardly ever happens. I continued to develop the site, all the while providing daily updates to the client, just to make sure that yes, they really are happy with the way things are progressing and, no, they don’t feel the need to make a “little change” to the underlying data structure. In fact, there was only one change I was asked to make before the site could go live; a single entry had to be purged from the database: Chernarus.
Normally, I wouldn’t give such a request a second thought, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard, read or seen anything about Chernarus since it was mentioned in the news a couple of months prior. I googled Chernarus for any recent mentions and came up empty; not a single mention of the country in news articles, blog posts, wikis, or social media that was less than year old.
On a whim, I did a quick search for recent mentions of Russia in the news. Since Chernarus used to be a part of the Soviet Union, I figured there might be some mention of the missing country. The only remotely interesting article I could find involved an American who had gone missing while traveling in the Ural mountains. Just another sad story.

Another couple of days and the project was finally completed; I got paid and treated myself to a night out with my friends to celebrate. On this particular night, we decided to catch a late movie, so it was nearly two in the morning when I arrived home. I hate to admit it, but I’m not as young as I used to be, I can’t pull all-nighters like I did in college just ten years ago (man, has it really been that long?). So I probably looked like some kind of brain-dead zombie staggering through the front door to the unexpected guest sitting in my living room.
It was clear he had been expecting me. He didn’t jump up in surprise or act in any way like I had caught him doing something suspicious. That’s not to say that he was completely at ease; he wore a fearful, hunted look about him - but I wasn’t the one making him nervous.
“Hey man, long time no see.”
There was an awkward moment of silence as my weary, startled mind struggled to put a name to the face.
“Pete? Is that you?” Pete and I had grown up on the same street, we graduated together, then went our separate ways in life. Last I heard - my mother was friends with his mother on Facebook - he was in the CIA.
He nodded, “You look good, life treating you well?”
“Yeah, I guess. You look …” How do you tell someone you haven’t seen in over a decade they look terrible?
Pete picked up on my hesitation. “I’ve been better.”
“What’s going on? Why are you in my apartment?”
“I need a place to lie low for the night,” he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be gone by the time you wake up.”
“Are you in trouble? Is someone after you?” I asked.
“That’s the problem, I’m not sure,” he sighed, “And if I was sure, it would be too late.” I can only imagine my expression as he said this.
“What do you know about Chernarus?” he asked.
“It was in the news a while back, people were sick or something. And now it’s like it no longer exists.”
Pete nodded, “There’s a reason for that. The country has been quarantined - completely cut off from the rest of the world.”
“The epidemic?”
“Maybe? I didn’t have enough clearance to dig that up, but I do know something heavy is going on in that country and no one is allowed in or out.”
Pieces of memory began to fit together, “the Russian navy - those weren’t military exercises?”
He shook his head, “A blockade. And the US is providing drones to patrol the mountains that separate the two.”
I had a sinking feeling about the answer to my next question. “That wouldn’t include the Urals, would it?”
“You heard about the missing American?”
“Just that he was last seen in the Ural mountains.”
“He was an independent filmmaker, looking to make a documentary about Chernarus.”
“And he was killed?”
Pete shrugged, “All I know is that my team was assigned to go look for him. Before we even leave the states, word comes down from the top that the case is closed and ‘Here’s your next assignment.’ That’s when I started digging.”
“I get the feeling you dug too deep.”
Pete leaned in, his voice low, “People are being sent to Chernarus. Just … bundled up, dropped off and left there.”
“If I knew that, I could blow the whole thing wide open.” he slumped back in the chair, “Right now I’ve got little more credibility than your run-of-the-mill conspiracy nutjob. Assuming I could get to the media, I’d just be spun as an unfit agent with PTSD or some other nonsense.”
“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” I offered, “But to totally cut off an entire country? How can they expect to keep it up?”
“Look at Area 51,” he countered, “No one denies it exists, they just don’t talk about it. And if any of the crazy ideas about what goes on there are accurate, who’s going to know? How do you tell the truth apart from the rest of it?”
By this point, my brain felt like mush. “I’ve got to get some sleep. The couch pulls out and there are blankets in the linen closet.” I got up from where I was sitting and started towards the bedroom, “Assuming this isn’t some crazy dream I’m having, we’ll figure things out tomorrow.”
Pete chuckled, some combination of bitter mirth and weariness, then said, “Good night.”
The next morning, I awoke to an empty house.

The next day, I returned home from work to find someone waiting for me in the driveway. The man flashed a badge - CIA - and asked to speak with me. Despite my uncertainty at the prior night’s encounter, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t given any thought to this scenario during the day. With all the calm nonchalance as I could muster, I invited the man inside and offered him a drink.
I sat where Peter had been waiting for me the night before while the agent sat on the couch and asked me questions about the boy who had grown up down the street from me; if I had managed to stay in contact with him, and if he might have tried to contact me recently.
Finally, the questions stopped and he stood to leave. I noticed that the throw pillow he had been leaning against was upside down, so that the zipper was showing.
“Sorry,” I said, as I flipped it over, “it’s an OCD thing - it really bugs me when people leave couch cushions upside down.”
A strange expression clouded his features for the briefest moment before he shook my hand, thanked me for my time and left.
After seeing him off, I collapsed on the couch with a huge sigh of relief. I had done a pretty good job of keeping it together; I drew comfort in the fact that, even if they suspected that Pete had contacted me - I had done nothing wrong, he was the one they were after.
It was getting late and, since I normally grab dinner right after work, I was starving. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I drove through the nearest fast food joint and made my way back home. Shortly after eating, I performed one last email check for the day and decided to turn in for the night. It’s probably telling of my caffeine consumption that I can knock back a regular-sized soda and go right to sleep - of course, being up most of the night before probably contributed. In just a couple of minutes, I was dead to the world.

My dreams that night were really weird; I experienced sounds and sensations, but couldn’t actually ‘see’ anything - like dreaming with a blindfold over my mind’s eye. It reminded me of the time I had my wisdom teeth taken out, and they put me under.
At different points, I felt like I was being carried or riding in a vehicle. The voices I heard were often hushed or muffled; there were a variety of accents and I think - at least once or twice - I heard someone speaking Russian. Not knowing a single bit of the language, it was hard to be sure.

Have you ever woken up in stages - like, your mind wakes up before your body? You’re lying there, thinking thoughts and being aware of the fact that you are awake, but you can’t move at all? Sleep paralysis, it’s called.
As I lay there, waiting for my body to get with the program, I realized that something was very wrong - I was not laying in my bed at home. I felt a fine, gritty texture against my face and hands and a cool breeze stirring above me; I heard the sound of waves and seagulls a short distance away. I was wearing clothes, but not the shorts and sleeveless t-shirt I usually wear to bed; the outfit I wore was unfamiliar to me. Finally, after a minute or two - which each of which felt like an hour - I realized I could move again.
I jerked myself upright to confirm my fears: I was sitting on a rural beach. Despite the lack of a single recognizable natural feature or landmark by which to orient myself, I knew with cold certainty where I was. Getting to my feet and stretching my aching muscles, I attempted to stop the nagging thought that kept repeating itself in the back of my head by finally giving voice to it,
“Welcome to Chernarus.”