Authors: V. Moody
We wandered around a bit more. There was a place with animal skins hanging outside, like animal shaped rugs but with a strange yellow liquid dripping off them. The stink made me want to gag.
A man with oily black hair stood over a table set up outside the shop, cutting large skins with oversized scissors. Through the doorway I could see two girls carrying piles of skins from one place to another.
I guessed this guy turned skins into leather. Maybe he also turned them into clothing.
A sign leaning against the table had drawings of what looked like various animals—rabbits, pigs, dogs—with a number next to them. At least they used the same numbers as us, although the rest of their writing was gobbledigook to my eyes.
Either the numbers were the price you paid for each to type of material, or it was how much they paid you for bringing them skins you hunted. I considered the latter to be more likely, especially in a place like this that was basically a starter town.
In RPGs you always begin in a low level area where you make money by doing menial and repetitive tasks. Hunting low level animals for their skins seemed like an obvious way to make money and train your fighting skills at the same time. It was the sort of thing that provided an easy grind when playing on a computer. It probably wouldn’t be so easy in real life. Assuming this was real life.
The lowest number on the board was for rabbit, with a one next to it. One bit? Five rabbits for a dagger, maybe? The most money was for a triangle. I had no idea what that represented, but it had the number fifty next to it.
The inhabitants of Probet milled around, chatting and greeting each other as you would expect. Maybe a dozen people shopped or went about their business, paying no attention to us. They were dressed plainly, like people from the Middle Ages, or possibly frontier America. Animal skins, woollen garments, simple designs. Everyone wore trousers, no skirts for the ladies, no flowery blouses. Did everyone in this world dress like this, or were we just in the arse-end of nowhere and people scraped by best they could? Hard to say.
I looked closely to see if any of them were elves or dwarves or some other exotic species, but they all looked human, and not very attractive at that. No black or Asian people either. But not super white like Dudley, more Mediterranean, olive skin with Caucasian features.
Other stores sold clothing, household goods, animal feed, freshly butchered meat (exactly what kind of meat I couldn’t say, but I swear one carcass had six legs). All basic stuff you might need for rural life.
I recognised some of the people checking out the different stores from our group. It looked like there were three other groups. The largest had six members, and was very clearly led by Golden Boy. He had no trouble walking up to shopkeepers and charming the socks off them.
Then there was an all female group of four, all very tall girls. The tallest had led the screaming complaints back at the hut. The other three looked like they had the permanent hump, a fixed pissed off expression stuck to their faces. Arms folded, head tilted, their eyes saying, “Yeah? What?”
I decided to give them a wide berth.
The last group of five was made up of what, if we were at school, I would refer to as the cool kids. Fancy haircuts, tattoos and even though they were wearing the same crappy clothes as us, they somehow managed to make it look stylish.
I’d put everyone in their late teens or early twenties. Probably university students. I left school at sixteen with the plan of getting a job and working my way up to some sort of senior position while kids my age wasted their time reading textbooks.
Brilliant sixteen-year-old me had come to the conclusion you didn’t learn from reading, you learned from doing. Not so cocky nineteen-year-old me had been doing the same job for the last three years, watching college kids come in and zoom past.
We carried on peering through the doors of open stores, too nervous to go in and have a proper look. I knew I should have gritted my teeth and investigated everything, talked to everyone, but just the thought of going up to one of these strangers from another world broke me out in a cold sweat. Nobody in my group took the initiative, they just hung behind me, waiting for something.
They did have fast food here, although they didn’t appear to need more staff. At the far end of the street there were some food stalls manned by shifty-looking characters. Unfair of me since I didn’t know them and had no reason to suspect them of anything, but if my cat went missing I wouldn’t be surprised if a new meat dish suddenly appeared on the menu.
I stood in a daze, watching meats roasting on skewers and sugary pastries frying in oil. The smells were unfamiliar but still made my stomach churn with hunger.
So this was Probet, our home for the next few days at least. I had hoped for an obvious quest-giver who would send us off on a mission. Or maybe a gossip to provide us with useful intel. More and more it felt like we would have to actually start from scratch and survive using our own strengths and skills. Unfortunately, I had never used the gym membership I got last January, and although I had thought extensively about what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse (haven’t we all?), my plans mostly relied on being able to find a motorised chainsaw.
I had an uncomfortable sense of doom hanging over me. No way would we survive like this. We were the sort of party that needed to find an OP weapon and become legendary heroes by having a massively unfair advantage over everyone. As it was, no magic swords or glowing hammers had fallen into our hands, and there was an excellent chance we would all be killed by the first group of rabbits we stumbled across.
The clanging of a bell snapped me out of my trance. The others were just standing there, looking at me expectantly. If they wanted me to share some words of wisdom or deep insight, they’d be waiting a long time. I turned around and headed back.
Back at the old shed, we were shown through a side door into a courtyard. Captain Grayson handed each person a small tin box with a piece of flint inside. He demonstrated how to produce a spark by striking the side of the box.
Next we each received a metal dish of cold stew and were pointed over to where four small fires, unlit, had been set up for us.
Suffice to say, we spent the next hour or so trying to start a fire while our stew slowly transformed into lumpy jelly . The tough part was getting the spark to catch, the larger pieces of wood adamantly refusing to have anything to do with flames of any kind. Luckily, we had all watched dozens of pseudo-documentaries where celebrities pretended to rough it out in the wild.
We needed kindling of some kind and Flossie solved the problem by pulling loose threads off her ‘new’ top and screwing them up into a bundle. Eventually we got the fire going, well after all the other groups had already started eating their hot stew.
The dishes had a small handle you used to hold it over the flames. The dish was metal. The handle was metal. I think you can guess the results.
We didn’t have any kind of utensils, so you had to wait for the stew to cool down before drinking it out of the edge of the dish. Made the whole point of heating it up rather pointless, but we were all so hungry we didn’t care. It tasted bland and mainly consisted of potatoes (I think). Still, at least we now knew how to start a fire.
As we sat there, stew dribbling down our chins, I could hear the other groups chatting away, some of them laughing, others complaining. Our group sat in awkward silence. Until, that is Maurice spoke up.
“I’ve been thinking. This is obviously a pretty backward kind of place, technologically speaking. If we could come up with an invention they haven’t thought of yet, we could become bloody millionaires!”
“Sure,” I said. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, it can’t be anything too advanced. It’s not like we can suddenly make a computer or a helicopter or something like that. The technology isn’t there. We need to come up with something low-fi. Something that a blacksmith could knock together, right?”
He looked around and the others nodded enthusiastically.
“I haven’t really had time to think it through completely, but as a first suggestion, how about we invent the bicycle?”
I took the opportunity to introduce my own new concept to this world, the facepalm.
“You think what this society is crying out for is the bike?” I tried not to sound too dismissive. I’m not sure I succeeded, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“Everything probably depends on horses at the moment, right?” continued Maurice, all fired up. “But horses cost money to look after. You’ve go to feed them, keep them in stables, they shit everywhere—it’s a fulltime job. But a bike, you lean it against a wall, job done. These people will never have seen anything like it. They’ll think we’re wizards!”
Sadly, we’d probably all be dead long before he got his dream of recreating the Tour de France off the ground, although the idea of knights in full armour charging into battle on a ten-speed chopper had a certain appeal.
However, his idea did make me realise we should use our obvious advantage to good effect. The things we’d learned at school and seen on television about this sort of period in our own history should allow us to come up with something we could use—especially when it came to weapons.
Even stone age man figured out how to tie a rock to a stick and kill things with it, so we should be able to, too. As the others discussed exactly how pedals attached to gears, my mind drifted, thinking of simple weapons we could make. Bows and arrows would probably be quite fiddly to get right, plus you’d need a lot of arrows. And sharpened ends wouldn’t be all that great compared to actual arrowheads.
After a bit of thinking the best idea seemed to be to make a sling. If it worked for David against Goliath, why not us? You needed a bit of string or something similar, and ammo was lying around everywhere. You just picked up small rocks off the ground. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed.
As I sat there feeling pleased with myself, I felt a presence next to me. I turned to find a girl standing there. It was her, the one with the freckled nose who had helped me back in the clearing. She didn’t look very happy.
“Hi, I’m Jenny.” She said it to me, but quickly moved on to look at everyone else. “I was wondering if I could join your group.”
The others awkwardly introduced themselves, at the end of which she turned back to me, obviously expecting me to do the same. I should make clear at this point, despite my general social ineptitude, there are two types of people I have no problems talking to. The first are those even more socially awkward than me (so, everyone sitting around the fire) and the other is pretty girls.
What? How can this be? Simple, really. I have absolutely no illusions about my chances, so there’s no pressure to impress or come off cool.
I can only go by my own experiences, but I’ve always found that if a pretty girl talks to me it’s because she wants something. If she flirts with me, it’s something she definitely has no right to ask for, and she knows it.
I can’t be bothered with people who are happy to use others like that. In fact, when it comes to pretty girls, I have a tendency to act like a dick.
“Why?” I asked her. She looked confused by the question. “You’re with them aren’t you?” I pointed at Golden Boy’s group. “Why would you want to leave them for us?”
She took a moment to think over her response. “All they talk about is killing stuff and how to get hold of better weapons. I’m not really comfortable with that stuff, so…” Her voice drifted off.
It made sense. Like the girl who made the outburst earlier, Jenny didn’t fancy going on a killing spree either. But why choose us? I looked over at the other two groups. The one nearest were the cool kids. Maybe even she felt intimidated by them, although I’m sure they’d accept her.
The other was the all girl group. If she really wanted to avoid killing anything then that would seem the more obvious choice. But pretty girls often had issues with other girls. And having a few guys around to manipulate didn’t hurt, either.
“I’m not sure why you think we’re any different. Do you not remember the thing that attacked us? Killing is the only way we’re going to survive here, and the people you’re already with are probably going to be a lot better at it than us. If you can’t do it yourself, you should stick with the people who can keep you safest, at least until something better comes along.”
As soon as I said it, I realised it sounded like an insult. Like I was calling her an opportunist who took advantage of people until she could dump them for an upgrade. That’s not how I meant it, but I also wouldn’t deny that there was more than a small possibility she was one of those people.
Jenny seemed to have picked up on it as her face twisted from mild consternation into biting anger. “You’re right. No point hanging with someone who has a panic attack every time he nearly gets stung by a bee.”
I wanted to correct her, but what could I say?
“It wasn’t a bee, it was a fairy”
? Not exactly a ringing endorsement for my masculinity, even though the fairy in question had looked more like Tinkerbell with rabies.
She turned around and walked away.
“Hey,” I called after her. “Back in the clearing, thanks for helping me.”
She paused and looked over her shoulder, confused. Rather than get into an argument, I had sincerely shown gratitude, just to mess with her. Classic dick move. She didn’t say anything, just went back to her group who were all smiles at her return. I guess she hadn’t told them she wanted out.
“Why did you do that?” asked Claire.
“What? I did her a favour. She’s better off with them.”
“Sure,” said Claire. “You told her to piss off because you like her so m—”
I looked over to see why she had stopped in the middle of what she was saying, but she looked away, suddenly tending to the fire with great intensity.
It took me a moment to realise she must have come to the conclusion I really did send Jenny away because I liked her and wanted what was best for her. Maybe on a subconscious level that was true, but there was an even more pressing reason to send her packing.
Despite my claim that I don’t see women as inferior, I also don’t see them as equal to guys in all areas. That would be stupid. Clearly, the typical girl isn’t as strong or aggressive as the typical boy. There are exceptions, of course, but I didn’t think Jenny was going to turn out to have a love of MMA and a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. In a world where we’d be fighting for our lives, the last thing our weak and feeble group needed was another girl.