You do what you must to survive.
Alex had told me that, and that was the axiom haunting the halls of my mind this evening as I set up camp atop a mountain overlooking Zelenogorsk. My fire sent a spectacle of shadow creatures dancing and flickering against the backdrop of trees, and except for this flame lit company I sat alone with my thoughts. It had been a long day, and one that, for extended periods, I felt would be non-eventful.
I was wrong.
When I had awoken this morning, I set myself on a path toward the airfield in the Northwest. It had once been a military outpost, and I reasoned I could find some superior supplies, at least in weaponry, there. Oddly enough, I didn’t even feel like I needed, or wanted, any of that weaponry – my shotgun had been suiting me just fine – but it gave me a direction after having spent a long period without one. So northwest I went.
For the most part, it was a long and dreary walk. Not even a rabbit dared to cross my path, and the woods felt increasingly empty and isolated. Every so often, I would come across a deer stand, or remote barn or house, which was kept company by some former resident now a walking dead, and in one of them I switched my ammo-less Remington for a better stocked Winchester, but overall the journey was as lonely as it was long.
When I reached the airfield, all of that changed.
It was a long stretch of land long ago cleared of any trees or underbrush, and several hangars, barracks and tower lined it as it stretched eastward out of sight. The abandoned buildings were decrepit enough that, were it not for the dozens of dozens of zombies which littered the space between them, they would have felt as forlorn as the trees I had traveled through. Instead, the undead gave them a sinister demeanor, and I almost turned and ran.
Mustering what courage I had remaining, though, I pushed onward, keeping to the trees which grew just inside a fence along the base’s northern border. From what I could tell, the demons were keeping near the structures, and I reached the first of them quickly. I studied their movements carefully from my hiding spot just inside the trees, but they seemed to lack any logic or patterns in their ambling; reaching the buildings was not going to be easy.
With some difficulty, and common retreats and backtracks, I managed to attain a small barracks; inside a single hallway lined with doors leading to small rooms. I checked one after the next, only to find identical bunks within each. Not a single weapon or ammo box hid inside, and not even a spent shell or used bandage lined the floors.
As I sighed silently in frustration, the sound of gunfire reached me from somewhere east of me in the compound. Again the urge to flee filled my body, but I resisted, moving from the barracks to buildings further up the runway. I ran quickly between each as uneven shots continued to sound, each footstep raising the volume of each until it seemed as though any door I opened could find me staring the trigger man in the face.
I never got the chance. Rounding the last corner within this lone cluster of buildings, I ran almost full force into a solitary zombie. If he had much of a brain remaining, I’ve little doubt he would’ve found himself as startled as I found myself, but instead he didn’t hesitate in lunging toward me with a hungry groan. All of my efforts toward stealth had been in vain, and managing to remain undetected by whomever held that gun was meaningless. I had no choice, I could only run to safety, hoping if I was seen by a fellow human, I would be either too swift or too distant to be reached by his bullets.
The gunman was not my only danger, of course; my escape also ran the risk of attracting even more the undead which filled the base, but that, too, was not enough to stop me. And so I ran. Past the barracks I had so uselessly searched, through the trees I had so carefully traversed, and back along the fence I had so shrewdly used for cover. When I reached the western end of it, and the edge of the airstrip, I turned.
The zombie which had been chasing me had fallen behind somewhat, and I had more than enough time to raise my shotgun to my shoulder and fire a single shell into the beast, dropping him instantly. If by some dumb luck I had managed to avoid being seen or heard until now, the sound of my weapon ensured that I certainly hadn’t now, but I was far enough away that I didn’t bother to look to see if anyone else had followed my path; I simply turned and ran back into the thick forest I had so lonesomely moved through only minutes earlier.
Save for my Winchester, so commonly found, anyway, it seemed, I had nothing to show for my long expedition, and I felt myself being drained of any motivation to carry on. What was the point? I had supplies enough for now, true enough, but for what purpose? To die tomorrow instead of today? Was nature’s continual push of a will to survive strong enough to overrule my growing sense of apathy whether I succeeded?
The questions danced in my brain, and I sat down near one of the trees, pulling my pack from behind me to absentmindedly review its contents. I had scarcely done so when my radio spurted to life with a call for aid: “I’m….right, but….if anyone….there….help…together….Kamenka….survive…” The words faded in and out between the static, and it was obvious they had drifted to this small box from a great distance away. If the name of the city I had made out was the transmission’s source, I knew that great distance meant a twenty kilometer journey back to the South, near the coast.
And I had been here before. My sense of compassion and assistance had only resulted in me getting an innocent man killed, and I hesitated now to curse another man with such aid. Still, the voice had seemed stronger than the other’s, and less desperate. It was possible, even if unlikely, that whomever it came from could offer me as much help as I him. If nothing else, he might offer companionship, and with my mind’s recent insistence on pessimistic conversation, it would be nice to hear another’s voice.
So again I set out for the South, answering my mind’s questions with an unspoken answer: “If survival meant nothing now, then I had nothing to lose.”
It took some time to make the journey back, but I stuck to the woods on the western border of Chernarus, which freed me to sprint almost the entire distance, resting only for short breaks to catch my breath and quench my thirst. When I had neared Zelenogorsk, for the third time now, I directed myself to its limits. Though it still festered with zombies, I reasoned that my own recent escape from death there would have quieted the city somewhat, and that I would be free to replenish my water and search for any supplies I had missed on my first ill-fated movements through.
But as I moved, foreboding began to clasp its cold hands around my heart. I first felt it when I moved around a building’s edge and found a pile of dead zombies near the doorway of the next house a half dozen yards away; the telltale signs of some stand against the beasts. No human body lay within the carnage, revealing that the fighter had survived. More bodies began to litter the streets as I continued to move, and the clear thought came to my mind that whomever had killed these creatures had either only recently left, or worse, was near me within the town.
I slowed to a walk now, and moved as quietly and cautiously as I could around each bush, tree and wooded structure, carefully scanning my entire surroundings with each turn. As I reached the cement fence which encircled the town’s store, I had failed to spot a single soul, but as I sneaked around the left corner of the last house I threw my gaze right and saw somebody sneaking around the opposite corner in the other direction. He hadn’t seen me, but I had seen him!
My heart was pounding out of my chest now, and the instinct to flee almost pushed my feet from the pavement into a sprint away from the town, but I resisted. I had run enough times, and for long enough, and even if all I achieved was a swift death from a gun, I was going to run no longer.
I turned, and sneaked back along the house. My unknown target must have moved slower than I had, for I spotted nobody on the opposite side of the house. For a moment, I wondered whether he had escaped to the west from the opposite end of the decaying structure which escaped my view, but suddenly I saw the long barrel of a shotgun jutting out from around the corner. It was followed by the man, who was walking crouched, obviously as cautious with his surroundings as I had been. I moved to a knee, and raised my shotgun, its scope aligned perfectly with my eye, and I waited.
My palms were sweating out what little moisture remained trapped in my body, and my hands shook unsteadily around the gun, defying all attempts I made to will them still.
He turned, saw me, and froze. I hesitated for only split second, then pulled the trigger twice in quick succession. Even with my shaken aim, the first shell staggered him, and the second dropped him to the ground. I moved quickly to where had fallen, but even before I reached his body I could tell I had killed him. There was no life in his eyes, and not a single hair on his arms had moved an inch.
I searched him quickly, finding that he must have been surviving on his own for some time. He had a pack larger than my own, full of ammunition for the Winchester and the revolver strapped to his side, a map, a hatchet, a full canteen, and a compass and watch not dissimilar to my own. I took all of them, switching my pack for his, thinking that the man on the radio I was moving to reach might be able to make use of what equipment I found redundant, then quickly made my escape from town, not even bothering to refill my water at the pump as I had planned.
It had all happened over the course of a few minutes, and only when I reached the edge of the forest which stood far eastward of the city did my emotions start to return to me. When they came, they brought with them an unwelcome friend, and guilt began to seep through every nerve ending of my body. I had killed a man, and not out of defense, but fear. And, as the new items in my possession could attest, out of greed.
Night was almost upon me now, and my thoughts carried me to where I had been thrown against the tree by Alex; “Kill or be killed. You die, or you watch others die.” Is this what I had become? Had I become the monster I had so passionately declared to myself I would never be? It was possible that the man I had killed was some amoral bandit, I reasoned, but it was just as likely he was more innocent than I had pretended to be. And either way, his blood now drenched my dirty hands.
In disgust, I climbed to the top of the small hill within the trees, and threw myself on the ground between the large pines. Alex had told me that, out here, in this dead world, a man had to do what he must to survive, and I had cursed him for it. I had recoiled at the thought of losing my humanity, only now to have allowed an unholy combination of fear and misplaced courage strip it from me with two shells from my shotgun.
I knew it wasn’t all gone. I knew I had only passed this way in a quest to offer aid to another. But still I couldn’t deny what was now a simple fact: Alex had been right, and I had done what was necessary to survive.
And, whoever he was, the victim of that lay dead in the streets of Zelenogorsk, and I sat here in the forest, surviving.