Sal didn’t feel fear when he saw the person walking toward them. They were still quite a bit away from the supermarket, but he could make out the shape of the weapon clearly. There were no shapes that were as definite as an AK-47.

His exhausted mind tried to figure out where this soldier originally came from. The weapon itself crossed out the USA and most first world nations. There were plenty of other nations that used that weapon, most weren’t friendly to Americans.  

Amarjot and the pudgy Asian man looked at him. Sal sighed and figured this was why he was being paid the big bucks. 

As he got to his feet, Sal felt a bit underdressed for the potential confrontation. He only wore his workout clothes and an oversized hoodie. He didn’t have any weapons as he’d hadn’t armed himself with the guard duty belt of pepper spray and the collapsible baton.  The duffle bag hung around his shoulders. 

The universe had been jerking him around for the last few hours and now another load of bizarre crap had been tossed on his plate. He hopped to his feet and strode out to meet the soldier.   He didn’t feel fear or wariness. He just felt tired and angry. 

The incoming soldier was a woman in her early to mid thirties. She wore a mismatch set of forest camo, civilian clothing, and a chest rig stuffed with magazines for the AK.  Her equipment was cleaned and well cared for, her clothing fraying at the edges, but not falling apart. She moved with purpose. Her hair was wrapped in a dark scarf and a long vicious scar ran from her forehead to below her right ear. 

Her eyes kept moving, taking in everything. Most of the other dazed women and men continued to plod along towards the desk, seemingly ignoring her presence. Others, seeing the weapon, had disappeared. Sal spotted a few of them already running away. The dark haired woman and the teenager cast Sal a worried glance, but he nodded and they continued working. 

Sal recognized the small flag on the shoulder of the woman, the orange, green, and white. It stirred a memory from a time he’d rather have forgotten.  She was Syrian Kurdish. That eased the tension he was feeling down several notches. 

“Good morning,” Sal said, stepping from out of the overhang and holding his hands palm outward to show they were empty. Though, he mused, the last time he did that it had resulted in a man getting eaten by a monster. 

The woman stopped a good twenty feet from him, the AK pointed to the ground but her hand wasn’t far from the trigger.  She looked him over and didn’t seemed impressed by the view. 

“I’m Alonzo Salazar,” he said. “Sal.” 

The woman didn’t looked shocked, confused, or fearful. She stood straight and confident as she took in the line of people moving and entering the supermarket.  

She moved with a purpose, Sal realized. 

“You in charge here?” the soldier asked. 

“Yes.” 

“What are you doing?” she demanded. 

Sal looked around at the people and then back at her. “I’m standing, mostly,” he said. 

She frowned at his response, her hand tightening on the weapon’s grip.  “You know what I mean,” she said. 

“I personally like to know who I’m talking to before getting interrogated,” Sal said. He knew he was being an idiot. She was armed while he had the protection of a pair of shorts and a hoodie. 

The soldier looked at him flatly. “Zara Merdan,” she said. 

“Glad to meet you, Merdan,” Sal said.  “May I ask why you’re here?”

“I’m asking the questions here,” she responded. 

“It’s give and take, Merdan,” Sal said. “I’m looking out for these people and trying to figure out what’s up. You come strolling in heavily armed and demanding answers. It doesn’t generate much goodwill. There’s a few ways this can go. We talk to one another with respect and politeness or you can use that weapon and make a mess of things.  We’re all unarmed civilians, so…”

The soldier’s hand tapped along the grip of her weapon as she watched him. “I’m checking the extent of this place,” she said finally. “I’ve been tasked to find others, to bring them to the Center, and to figure out how big this area is, investigate dangers, and find help.” 

“I’m glad to help you out,” Sal said smiling at the soldier. 

He looked back to the grocery store and saw that most of the lined up people had disappeared and the dark haired woman and teenager were peering behind the glass of the store window. He spotted Osinbajo and the monk both watching him at the entrance. Amarjot still stood behind him, but the Asian man was gone. 

“To the west the city ends in about two hundred feet,” Sal said. “It just becomes a grassy area filled with some terrifying ass monsters. We already lost a person who crossed over.” 

Sal filled her in with the details of what they’d been doing for the last few hours. The soldier nodded and kept her eyes moving, taking in people who were staring out of the windows to see what was going on. Sal began to realize that she wasn’t as confident as he had thought. There was tension in her form and her eyes didn’t stop moving for anything. She was tightly wound up, he realized. 

He was, unfortunately, beginning to recognize the signs of stress in everyone around him. No one was cool or calm. Everyone was still in their own worlds of crumbling reality. 

INSIGHT LVL 5

The words flashed briefly in the corner of his vision and Sal had to sigh at the reality they were in now. When had he leveled four times? 

“A game?” Merdan asked. 

“Yeah, like a computer game.  It’s set up like a Role Playing Game,” Sal said. 

Merdan chewed on that information for a time. “Gomez said something about it, but it didn’t seem real,” she muttered. “That girl was saying the same thing too, but I figured she was just going mad like everyone else.” 

“Just think ‘open status’ and everything you thought you knew just got weirder,” Sal said. “This fucking place, wherever we are. I don’t know…” Sal sighed, unable to articulate the emotion that was running through him. 

Fear, anger, worry, rage…

Merdan’s posture shifted. Instead of the ready to fight stance she had, it became resigned and dejected.  The realization of what was happening was finally beginning to settle upon her. It was not a happy bit of comprehension. 

“What the fuck is going on?” It was rhetorical. 

Minutes passed as the soldier stared at what seemed to be nothing. Her hands moved and she seemed to grasp how to use the menus.  After a while she shook her head and looked at Sal with confusion. 

“Think ‘close status’,” he offered. 

She nodded and sighed with relief. 

“I’ve told my tale of woe, what’s your’s?” 

The soldier adjusted her rifle. “There’s a man. South American, I think. Marco Gomez. He’s trying to organize and get people working to figure out what’s going on,” Merdan began. She looked behind her to the east. “A kilometer behind us is what we’re calling the Center. It’s a big marble building, about two hundred meters across, big enough to hold thousands. It sits, well, right in the center of this whole mess. I awoke in the northeast, among some homes. So many damn big houses,” she muttered shaking her head. “I came across Gomez as he was trying to organize people. He said we needed to know how big this place was and if there were anyone here that could tell us what’s going on or provide assistance.” 

“Have you met anyone who’s from this city?” Sal asked. 

Merdan shook her head. “Most are dazed and confused. A lot of people just run when they see me,” she looked down at her weapon. “From what I can tell, this place is probably four square kilometers. I’ve walked most of the northern edge, seen some creatures, but didn’t go into the woods. Had a bad feeling about that.” 

“Who is this Gomez?” Osinbajo asked. 

Sal looked behind him to see that the doctor and the monk had joined them, though slightly behind him. He felt like he was being used as a potential shield. 

“He’s been trying to help people to the east of here. Gathering them up, seeing what they know, all that stuff,” Merdan said. “I talked with him for a bit, he seems to be an honest man.” 

Sal felt a bit of elation at that news. If someone was looking to be the leader and take charge, who was he to get in their way? He felt himself smiling. 

“He’s calling a meeting in a few hours,” Merdan said. “He says we need to all figure things out and plan accordingly.” She looked toward the supermarket and stores. “Most of this place is nothing but houses. A few businesses.” 

“Suburban sprawl,” Sal said. “This is Phoenix, Arizona or a part of it.” 

“Four square kilometers is not much to work with,” Osinbajo said. “How many people do you estimate are here? Right now there is two hundred and sixty three people in the grocery store. We saw maybe another hundred milling about before you arrived.” 

Sal was surprised at the number. 

“There was probably five hundred at the Center. I’ve seen more walking the streets,” Merdan said. 

“That’s nearly nine hundred people,” the doctor mused. “We have to figure a lot of people are just wandering around lost or confused. We’re barely organized at it is, but some people are coming around.”

“How many people can we get out in search teams?” Sal asked. The image of the man who had been killed still lingered in his thoughts. God forbid if someone accidentally crossed through the barrier, not only the adults but there were bound to be plenty of children. He remembered reading a statistic once that said more than a quarter of the world’s population was under the age of fifteen. 

“About a quarter of the people we’ve talked to and interviewed are well enough to be given jobs. Tshering has been sounding them out, he’s good at it,” the doctor said. “We’ve mostly got adults here, less than a dozen children. We think they might be hiding or just lost and scared.” 

Sal nodded and looked to Merdan. “How long until the meeting?” 

“The clocks are all messed up here,” Merdan said looking down at a wristwatch. “Gomez said four hours from when I left an hour and a half ago. So in two hours and a half.”

“Will you continue your search?” Tshering asked. 

Merdan nodded. “It’s the job I was given,” she said. 

“We’ll be there, as many that are willing and able to come.” Sal said. He stepped forward and extended his hand. Merdan hesitated a moment and then shook it. The rest followed suit and the tension eased among all of them. 

The four stood there as Merdan left the shopping center and crossed the parking lot, heading east. 

Sal sighed and rubbed his face, turning to the three. The doctor, the monk, and the guard. He saw that people were slowly coming back out of the grocery store, several with bottles of water or food in their hands. 

He felt a rumble of his stomach as he realized he’d hadn’t eaten this evening… morning? Dinner was supposed to have been with Carmen. Sal stopped the line of thinking and looked back at the people gathering before him. 

“Alright, people. We have work to do.” 

The dark haired woman that had been processing people was named Katarina Runov and the teenager helping her was Amber Williams. Osinbajo introduced them all and they began sorting through all the people and figuring out what to do with them. 

As the doctor had said, many were still in a state of shock and confusion. Scores of people sat in chairs of the small dining area and coffee shop of the grocery store, so many most of them sat upon the floor staring at nothing.  Tshering walked among them, handing out water and talking softly with each one. Sal didn’t know if it would make a difference, but the monk seemed to know what he was doing. 

That just left everyone else who was able. 

Two hours flashed by before Sal knew it. 

The final count was three hundred and five people. Nearly twenty children under fifteen, the rest adults. Forty men and women volunteered to help look for people, a lot more than Sal had expected. He sent them out in groups of four for safety’s sake and with strict orders to not go into the forests or grass. 

Other people who were shocked but able to function, began helping in the inventorying of the supplies that were on hand. The dark haired woman seemed to be doing a fantastic job getting people moving. 

Things were looking up, Sal thought as he chatted with groups of people who were still in a daze. For now there were no emergencies or fires to be put out. 

He wondered how long that would last. 

Sal was walking down an aisle as Runov listed off the stores of food and information that they had organized. It was looking like the wealth of food and edibles inside the grocery store was more illusion than reality. Ten days of food, is what Runov quoted, with the current population they had. But then Merdan had also said there were maybe five hundred more at the Center, wherever that was. That ten days would be severely cut down. 

There also wasn’t a definite count on how many people had arrived. Were there less than a thousand? Two thousand? Three? How ever many there were, The houses in the suburban area would need to be checked for food. Most American families had a few days to a week of food in their cupboards and fridges. That just caused another worry about the food potentially going to waste with the power having been cut off. 

The base necessities were the current problem. People were still scared, but as the day progressed, Sal knew they would all need places to sleep. The easy option was just to take over the homes that were abandoned, but that left a whole lot of questions of ownership and their continued cooperation. 

No one here had any reason to work together. They didn’t know one another, they didn’t have any connection to one another. Sal wasn’t the type to think just their shared humanity would unite them, but so far everyone seemed fairly ordered and willing to lend a hand. 

He hoped it would continue. 

Runov was a twenty seven year old personal assistant from Moscow. She’d been an assistant of a wealthy business man when she, along with the rest of humanity, had been transported here. 

She was amazing at her job. She and her assistant had gotten information down from all the men and women that had come to the grocery store for aid. They had been inventorying all the materials and getting people fed and looked after. 

People trickled in, some of them already sick from whatever they had before, others injured during their transition or injuries before they were brought over. 

Osinbajo had set up a small clinic in the Pharmacy of the grocery store. She had already said she wanted to check out the Urgent Care facility that lay on the other side of the parking lot, but she had been too busy organizing and caring for the injured. 

“Nothing too serious,” the doctor said. “Just minor cuts, bruises, a sprained ankle, and a couple of older people who had hard falls.” 

Sal nodded at the information, already noting that Runov was writing it down. 

“What do you make of this?” Osinbajo asked, handing Sal a small vial. 

The vial was the length and width of his index finger. He lifted it  up to the light and saw that it was a deep red color, almost like blood. There was a hand printed label on the bottle. 

HEALTH POTION, CRUDE.

There wasn’t any other information on the bottle. 

Sal had told them the current theories that they were trapped inside a game or they were transported to a place with RPG rules and systems. He looked down at the potion and then back at Osinbajo. 

“Have you tried it?” he asked. 

Osinbajo shook her head. “How are you even supposed to use it? Inject it? Drink it? Apply it on a wound? How rare are these things? Can it really heal a person?” She shook her head again and shrugged. “I haven’t gone completely through the medicines in the pharmacy, but I’ve run across a few of those vials. I doubt Americans have produced Health Potions.” 

“That means someone put them there,” Runov said, her eyes going wide. 

“Our mysterious transporter.” Sal said. He looked down at the vial again. “Someone really wants this to be a game,” he added. 

“What does the crude mean?” Runov asked. 

“I think it’s the quality of the potion,” Sal said remembering back to his days of playing games. “Based on the quality of the potion, the faster it heals or fixes damage.”

“What does seventy Health Points restored even mean?” the doctor said. 

Sal shared a look with Runov. He had learned the assistant had gained a skill called Analyze that allowed her to see the names of things, but it was on par with his own abilities. 

“What does the label say?” Sal said. 

Osinbajo looked confused for a moment and said. “Health Potion, Crude. Restores seventy Health Points and boosts regeneration by ten percent for sixty seconds.” 

“You realize we can’t see any of that information,” Sal said. 

The doctor’s eyes widened a bit. “I’m winning at this game,” she said. 

“It might be your profession,” Sal said. 

“Surgeon?”  the doctor asked. 

“There are healing classes in RPGs, so perhaps because you’re a doctor, you can see more information on healing items,” Sal replied.  It was an absolute guess. 

Osinbajo snorted. “This is stupid,” she remarked. “Why the hell is the information not available to you? If this thing is really what it is, then it could save lives. Yet for some damned reason you can only read the name of it.” 

Sal shared her frustration. There were rules to this whole thing it seemed. He wondered if it were really a game or if they were here in reality. Sal had a friend from the old days that would go on and on about how reality was just a simulation by some advanced species. 

He looked around and wondered if that would explain all the weird shit that had happened. 

“We’re going to have to find every potion in here and in the urgent care office,” Osinbajo said. “These were just sitting randomly on shelves and in desks inside the pharmacy.  If they are real, then that could mean a lot of things.” 

“No one else has run across these,” Runov said checking her notes. 

“No one probably knows what they are,” Osinbajo said. “Probably can’t read…” then she paused. “Fuck. You realize we all can read different languages, not just understand them?” 

Sal hadn’t thought about it. He knew that Runov was speaking to him in Russian and Osinbajo was speaking to him in Dutch, but he hadn’t thought about the different languages the others were were seeing. The mix of Spanish and English signage in stores were something he’d always seen in the the states bordering Mexico.  He could read both and understood both, but for people who weren’t English or Spanish speakers what did they see. 

“It’s not written in English or Spanish,” Sal said. Concentrating on the label, he realized the writing was one he’d never seen before. It reminded him of the Arabic, but also overly complicated. 

“This is all just too weird. How do we even know this information?” Runov muttered. “It took me three years to learn English and four to learn French, but now I know what everyone is saying and can read everything shown.” 

Sal handed the vial back to Osinbajo. “Find all the potions and weird shit that doesn’t belong. We’ll have to find more knowledgeable people to figure out what all of it is.” Sal looked around for a bit. “Where is Daisuke? He seemed to know a lot about games.”

He realized he hadn’t seen the man since Merdan showed up. Runov flipped through her notes and papers. 

“He isn’t on our list of people,” she said.  

Sal sighed. “Maybe he was a figment of my imagination,” he said. 

“I’m going with you to this meeting,” the doctor said. 

Sal nodded and then realized another thing. “Who is going to keep order here when we leave?”

“I suppose we’ll have to have faith in the stupefying nature of this event to keep everyone calm,” Osinbajo remarked. 

Sal snorted. “Huzzah for mind numbing shock.” 

“The real fun begins when people realize they’re not going insane and figure out they’re stuck here,” Osinbajo intoned. 

Runov left to find her assistant, who was manning the intake table outside the grocery store with Amarjot standing guard, and Sal took a moment to take a breather.

He yawned as exhaustion began to settle upon him. There was a rack of candy bars and he grabbed one. He chuckled to himself, he’d had similar dinners before. As he chewed; he idly walked through the store. 

There was a silence in the store that seemed out of place. He should have been hearing crappy music and watching as tired men and women, still dressed in their work clothing, picking up food before heading home.

But it was silent and there were only few murmured voices in the dim lighting. 

Sal finished his meal and was going to head to the front of the store to check on others when he heard a loud banging. He felt a tremor of concern as he automatically moved toward the sound. He fumbled for the duffle bag he still carried and pulled out the collapsible baton. 

The image of the red monster flashed into his head as the banging continued. Could one of the creatures cross the barrier? 

There was a crash of glass and more banging. Sal saw an office door ajar. He pushed open the door to reveal a dimly lit room and a man standing over a safe on the floor. 

Sal stared in confusion for a moment. The man had a large hammer in one hand and was trying to smash open the safe.  He almost laughed as he realized the man was after the money inside. 

“What the hell are you doing?” Sal demanded. 

The man looked up at him. He had brown hair, green eyes, and a dismissive look on his face. 

“Fuck off,” the man said. 

There was a question of legality and who commanded what when it came to this place. No one here were residents and no one here owned any of the things in this store, but Sal understood if he allowed for rampant looting, even for useless currency, then things would get out of control real fast. 

“Stop it,” Sal said. “Money’s useless.”

“Fuck. Off.” 

Sal sighed, stepping into the room. Confronting armed soldiers and getting thieves to stop thieving all seemed to be under the umbrella of what was his job now. 

“Hey, man,” Sal began and then noticed the pistol in the man’s off hand. 

Shit, he thought. 

Then the thief pulled the trigger. 

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