Tanya swept up the shorn off hair into her dustpan, trying not to stare at the heavy iron sword the middle-aged man was buckling back around his waist. It was enough that the people living around here didn’t use electricity, and didn’t even seem to want to, but it was another thing entirely for Tanya to accept that the people here wore fucking swords.
Tanya had awakened 5 days go in the border regions of this “Zone” as they called it. From her perspective, one moment she had been lazily watching TV at night, the next it was mid-afternoon, and all the TV displayed was fuzzy static. There were strange words in front of her, floating in the air. She blinked several times, and the words went away. Had she taken a nap?
There was a dull roar outside, almost like a lion or a tiger. Tanya went to the window and saw a Lion with brilliant sapphire fur proudly roaring at the sky, seemingly defying the world with its bestial majesty.
‘Ah,’ Tanya thought to herself. ‘This must be a dream.’
A good dream too, because Tanya quite liked lions.
The dream did, however, go swiftly south. After only two minutes of watching, Tanya had to admit that the people fleeing down her road from the lion were remarkably realistic for a dream, and the level of detail in the gore of their deaths left Tanya profoundly disturbed at her own subconsciousness.
Shaking her head, she turned away from the window just in time to see the lights in her house flicker and die, winking abruptly out. Tsking to herself, Tanya walked to her fridge and removed a coke, and was halfway through the pure, slightly painful pleasure of chugging it when the door was kicked in by a man with green skin.
Tanya stepped into the living room and stared at the ‘man’ for a long time. It looked back and forth, his eyes squinting as he sniffed.
“You are an orc,” Tanya said, surprised at the surety in her own tone. An ex-boyfriend had been extremely into Dungeons and Dragons, and while things were good between them, he had brought her to sessions with his friends. To her surprise, she had enjoyed the sessions a lot; it was a nice stress relief to be allowed to be someone else, someone who didn’t share her anxiety and her family stresses. After the two of them broke up, however, Tanya was somewhat at a loss as to how to accomplish that on her own.
At her words, the green-skinned man twisted to look at her. Then he smiled, revealing broken yellow teeth. Instincts Tanya had never realized she had screamed at her, and she was out the back door faster than she would have believed her 32-year-old body could carry her. Luckily, it seemed the sapphire lion was gone, although the bodies of his prey were not, so Tanya had to be careful not to look too closely, lest she lose her nerve and start panic crying.
The green skinned man barreled out of the house behind her, and chased her to the next street over, steadily gaining ground on her, sniffing all the while. When she reached the next street, she blinked, because the houses were… wrong. This wasn’t the street next to her. But she heard yelling voices, shouts to head this way for assistance, so Tanya gladly fled in that direction.
When she rounded the corner, Tanya wouldn’t have been able to explain what she expected to see. Men and women marching in leather armor weren’t one of them. They waved her over, asked if she was hurt, and when she wasn’t, she was asked to stand with a group of other uninjured people, about a dozen, that followed behind the 10 or so armored people.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tanya saw a black man with a giant iron ball crush the green-skinned man as if it was nothing, then step over the body to continue to move through the neighborhood.
After about 10 minutes, they met up with another group, and then all of the ‘Newbies’, as their rescuers referred to them, were sent to a community center that had been turned into a triage unit. And a holding area, it seemed, while the people with medieval weapons figured out what to do with them.
Oddly, Tanya didn’t feel worried. Her constant companion anxiety seemed to be taking a break, not because there weren’t things to be anxious about, but because there was so much that it didn’t even know what to react to. Large men with sharp knives? The fucking lizard that she saw breathing fire? That she saw a woman walk through that fire like it was nothing and impale the monster with a spear?
Or even the weird notifications that popped up, about her Leveling Skills, or unlocking Paths, as if this was all a game?
When the people were brought into the community center, they were asked if they had any medical experience. Having worked for her mother as a veterinary assistant for several years, Tanya cautiously raised her hand. She felt guilty, but she figured she might be treated a bit better like this.
Very soon she was bandaging cuts and slinging arms with broken bones. It was far beyond her usual duties, and those had been near 8 years ago, but again, she felt… strangely empty. There was nothing to do but work right now, so Tanya threw herself into it, trying not to dwell on anything else.
She could smell blood, however.
When Tanya arrived, there were about 50 people in the community center. By the time she started treating small scrapes and bruises, there were almost 400 and it was becoming increasingly difficult to move through the space. Several times, people came up to Tanya, who had been given a bright green vest, to ask what was going on.
What had happened? They asked. What are the messages?
Tanya could only shake her head and ask the people to please stay out of the walking paths so she could treat more people. After all, Tanya had those same questions burning in her heart.
The man in charge of the armed group, and who ran the community center was named Dinesh. There was a part of Tanya that still believed this was all a dream, or if it wasn’t, it was just a strange tragedy that had struck briefly, but normal life would swiftly resume. Although her cell phone said there was no service, she was sure the authorities would have it back online quickly. After all, how else would they rescue all these people?
But then she watched a young girl, probably not even 7, come in with an iron bar stuck through her stomach. Without even batting an eye, Dinesh pulled out the iron bar from the girl's stomach, causing her to scream shrilly.
He gestured, his face calm. “Hold her down. If she struggles, this will be harder than it needs to be.”
Tanya wanted to ask what was the point, as she had a pretty good idea what a stomach wound meant for the victims, but she had a secret hope that maybe this wasn’t as bad as it looked. Then Dinesh pressed his hands to the wound and muttered something, and Tanya watched the wound heal within seconds.
Tanya blinked at him.
He appeared to misinterpret her look, and shrugged in an embarrassed fashion. “I don’t want you to think I wasted your time, making you use first aid when I could heal them all. But it would be a waste of Mana, and this way, you can Level your First Aid Skill. You’ve gotten it, correct?”
Recognizing the name from the notifications, Tanya nodded, extremely numb.
“Is this… all just a game?” She whispered.
Dinesh smiled bitterly. “Welcome to the System.”
With Dinesh vouching for her, Tanya was allowed to stay on in Donnyton, instead of being sent to Franksburg, which was a larger city but was apparently inferior in some way. Tanya didn’t really ask any questions. She was struggling already with understanding what the System meant for her.
The old world was dead, Dinesh told her. Monsters roamed the countryside. People had Stats and could gain Levels. Some people gained Classes, and grew even more powerful. Dinesh was one of those people, Tanya quickly realized, although he never explicitly said it.
In addition, it became clear rather quickly that Dinesh wasn’t just someone with a Class, he was the captain of a Squad. And that Squad was relatively well respected, even by the Squads with lower numbers, which Tanya gathered were a higher rank. She was able to discern this while watching most of the other people in her area were shipped off down to Franksburg.
Not that it really mattered to Tanya. She wasn’t close with any of those people.
She wasn’t close with much of anyone, anymore.
Almost as if he forgot, Dinesh looked up at Tanya, a blank look on his face. “Oh, what did you do before?”
“Before what? Today’s weirdness?” Tanya said, shivering.
To her surprise, Dinesh smiled sadly. “Ah, yes, I had forgotten. To you, it has been but a day. Let me tell you… I’ve lived with this for a little over a year and a half.”
As her brain tried to make sense of that, Tanya considered herself. She was a veterinary school drop out, who had started cutting hair to pay her way through school. When the stress became too much, she stopped attending classes, but not stopped cutting hair to pay for them.
To her surprise, Dinesh seemed much more interested in the hair cutting than she would believe.
“Although it seems stupid, no one who was here really cut hair before the System came,” Dinesh said. “And most of the people who did are in Franksburg. I think we can get you set up pretty easily.”
And so he did. It just all happened so quickly.
Day 1: A green-skinned man tried to eat her.
Day 2: She was moved around like a refugee
Day 3: She told Dinesh she can cut hair.
Day 4: He showed her to her new sop, if she wants it
Day 5: She spent the entire day cutting hair.
And holy fuck, she was exhausted.
After the middle aged man finished belting on his sword and left the shop, Tanya looked around. There was a pile of money and assorted gifts she had gotten from people on the table, which she went to. One of them was a bottle of liquor given to her by a local brewer, or something, which she numbly cracked open on the wooden table. She took a long swig.
Two sweet for a beer, too smooth and oddly light for actual liquor. It seemed to be strawberry wine, but it was light and fresh and tasted like spring. The sweetness was reserved, too, something that tasted natural, rather than artificial corn syrup or something.
She took another long sip, smiling. She looked around at her strange new temporary home. This wasn’t so bad, was it?
It was only after the door opened and the bell rung softly that Tanya realized she hadn’t put up the closed sign.