Alonzo “Sal” Salazar was on the phone when the world ended.
He stood in the parking lot of his apartment complex, phone in one hand and his car keys in the other. The voice on the other end of the phone was his girlfriend Carmen’s.
The sun was setting on that spring Austin, Texas evening. He’d just gotten off his shift at work and had been heading to the gym before he go on a date with the woman he loved. A day in a cubicle had left him with a headache that could be fixed with some cardio, which would also improve the low grade exhaustion he felt.
The call was about the date. She had a last minute meeting with her co-author for a paper she was writing, but also wanted to keep the date they had planned. As the pressures of university increased, their time together had equally decreased. He, at least, had the government’s promise to pay for his education. Carmen. on the other hand, had only scholarships and grants at her disposal. He also wasn’t a graduate student working on his doctorate like she was.
Sal was happy to meet with her earlier. He could always go to the gym afterward.
All those thoughts were swept from Sal’s mind as a blue box appeared in his vision. A three foot square box that floating in the center of his vision as he turned his head or looked up and down. He wondered if it were some kind of augmented reality stunt? Sent through his phone, hacked through his brain? Sal didn’t know and he reached forward. The blue box rippled as if touched, but he felt nothing.
The words appeared in white within the box.
Confusion and fear warred within Sal, but he clamped down upon it and brushed it aside.
“Sal?” Carmen asked with concern in her voice. “What’s going on? What’s this blue box?”
“You can see it too, babe?” he asked.
“Shit. I don’t know, babe. If you can see it and I can see it, does everyone also see it?” he wondered out loud.
“I don’t know. What is it?” Carmen was beginning to panic.
There was a piercing screech, like nails dragging across chalkboard, and then the phone went dead. Sal pulled the phone in front of him and noticed that the blue box stood an arm’s length from his vision, but he could still see his phone as he brought it closer to his face. He reached out again and felt nothing, the blue box rippling at his apparently touch.
The phone was dead and this situation was far too strange.
The blue box flashed. More text began walking across the screen.
HUMANITY. It began. YOU HAVE BEEN NOTICED.
THE CRUCIBLE BEGINS.
SURVIVE OR NOT.
ONLY THOSE FIT CAN ASCEND.
Those words were ominous as hell, Sal thought.
He began to feel a vibration. A small tremor that began to increase. The loose rock and gravel bordering the parking lot shuddered and birds cried, bursting into the air. His eyes followed the birds and he nearly screamed in horror.
The sky had darkened, but not because clouds or falling night. Instead black, pure black, liquid spilled across the heavens. From the west it came, like falling night, but he could still see the sun in the sky. It swirled and churned, an ocean of ink in the sky.
In the distance he heard screaming and the sounds of terror, but his eyes were locked upon the sky. A moment later light engulfed him and Sal felt weightless.
He was in a vast white empty, he looked down to see he had no body, no arms, nor legs, but he could still feel them. He could still-
As quickly as it had begun, it was over, and he hit the pavement hard. His breath exploded from him and he let out an involuntary groan. He lay there, gasping for breath and his heart thundering in his chest. He didn’t feel any pain, but could feel an unsteadiness to his limbs.
He laid there on the warm pavement as he slowly came back to himself.
What happened? The blue box wasn’t in his vision anymore.
He needed to call Carmen.
He pushed himself to his knees, noticing something different. It had been evening a moment ago. The light had been soft and orange tinted, but now the light was bright and white. Cool crisp air reached him and he heard birds chirping.
Sal looked to where his car had been and frowned. His car was a beat up blue sedan. The vehicle before him was maroon and a pick-up truck. He scrambled to his feet and looked around.
He stood in a five lane suburban street. Vehicles stretched bumper to bumper in two lanes going in one direction and more vehicles filed two lanes heading in the opposite direction. There were hundreds of vehicles.
The sun stood a hand’s width above buildings to the east. They are low slung buildings, apartment complexes and small business suites, nothing over two stories tall. It looked like any suburban town he’d been in America.
The vehicles packing the street headed west and east, yet none of them were running. There were also no occupants.
Where the hell was everyone?
Sal took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and slowly counted to ten. It worked with anger and he hoped it would with panic. The situation was too weird, even for him. He always figured he’d had a solid head on his shoulder, but maybe he had been wrong.
He stepped forward and set his hand on the sloping windshield of A nearby red sports car, feeling the glass smooth and warm beneath his hands. He noticed the smudges of his finger prints on the glass, the small splattering of insects on the window, and bits of leaves and dirt embedded in the crevices of the hood. If he were hallucinating or crazy, he was hallucinating in high detail.
No, he was not hallucinating. Everything was too real. He felt the sun, he felt the road beneath him, the feel of glass and metal from the car, and the low grade exhaustion from spending his entire day at work.
To the west he saw an intersection. A cluster of stop lights and signage displaying the north south road as Wilson Ave. Sal made his way toward it, hoping to see where the roads led. He pushed his way through the vehicles and after a few minutes stood in the center of the intersection.
The east west road was called Broadway Road and a black SUV was in the middle of the intersection turning south onto Wilson Ave, as with every vehicle he’d seen it was empty. Sal checked the doors and they were locked. He moved to the opposite side and peered through the passenger-side windows and saw keys still in the ignition. There was a purse on the passenger sea, a cell phone in a holder on the dashboard, but no driver.
Whatever had happened, people were in the middle of their daily lives. Driving home from work, going about their business. Sal thought back on how he’d been going to the gym. Everything had been interrupted, but where was everyone? He couldn’t be the only person around, could he?
Being the last man on Earth would really suck.
Sal looked north, Wilson Avenue continued flat and level until it reached trees that seemed to grow tall and thick. He guessed it was less than a mile away. He moved around the SUV looked south and noticed more trees, this time they were far closer, a quarter of a mile.
The southbound lanes vanished into a wall of trees. The asphalt continued one moment and then vanished, then the trees began. These weren’t the smaller tamed trees he’d seen dotting the sidewalks, these were massive oaks and pines that stood nearly a hundred feet tall. These were old trees, primordial even, casting the land to the south in shade and darkness.
It looked like a forest from some fairy tale, tall hulking trees, dark forest floor, and he could see birds fluttering off the top limbs. He stepped back and ran his eyes along the tree line as it extended east. It was a wall of trees, running straight east to west, dwarfing the smaller buildings.
He decided to investigate the forest, it just seemed completely unnatural. He heading toward the forest when he heard a cry.
Old instincts kicked in. Sal crouched low and began scanning his area, he was very exposed and cursed himself for his lapse in awareness. He heard the cry again. It was human and as he listened he realized it wasn’t one of pain or injury, it was one of confusion and fear.
Sal got up, figuring that whomever the individual, they were in the same boat as he. The noise came from the western side of the intersection. Sal moved quickly, homing in on the sobs that had replaced the exclamations.
He saw an older Asian man, in his forties or fifties, short, pudgy, and wearing a button down shirt and slacks. The world standard uniform for office workers. He leaned against a car, head in hands, and his shoulders shaking,
“Hey,” Sal began.
The man twirled toward him, his eyes bulging in surprise. Then the man began screaming and running from Sal.
Sal was caught off guard for a moment and then instinctually ran after the man, calling for him to stop. The man, although short and rotund, was fast in his panicked state. Sal realized he was making things worse, so he stopped.
The man continued running, glancing back to see where Sal was.
Sal noticed something as he looked beyond the running man. He had seen where southbound Wilson had run into thick trees, now he saw where the westbound Broadway ended. Beyond the running man was an open field of waist high grass, brilliant green in the morning light. There was no more road, just an abrupt transition from asphalt to grass.
He stared at the end of the road, he saw the cab of a semi truck sheared in half. The truck had been heading east, but now it sat with its front end tilted skyward and the rear half of the truck gone. Only the pair of front tires sat on pavement and the rest of the cab didn’t exist.
He looked around and saw that everything that reached the end of the road had been cleanly sliced away. A street lamp post was beginning to bend under its own weight as half of it was gone. An abandoned shopping cart toppled into the grassy area from the sidewalk, and a car wash to the south was also missing large pieces of it.
All he could see was grass to the west.
The man continued running until he hit the grass, then stopped and stared in confusion. He turned around looking back at Sal and began to take in long shuddering breaths. He closed his eyes and wiped at his face, and then stared back at Sal. The fear and panic that had gripped him was beginning to slide away.
Sal waited for the man, putting on a smile and holding his hands palm outward to show he wasn’t armed. He stood beside an old Dodge truck, the cab of the truck blocked his view of things to the north of the road, so he never saw the thing coming.
The sobbing man had run a fair distance into the grass and had his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths. He wasn’t paying attention his surroundings.
A creature, black and red upon the brilliant green of the grass, charged the sobbing man. It barreled from the north, loping on long muscular legs.
He gaped at the horror that raced toward the sobbing man. The monster stood ten feet tall on two thick legs, had four arms, and was covered in matted black fur from its torso to its legs. The hide of the creature was red, an unnatural red that stood out in contrast to the green grass it stood in. A dozen black eyes dotted its head and as it neared the man, its mouth opened up, splitting horizontally and vertically, and revealing rows upon rows of sharp needle teeth.
Fear boiled up in Sal and he would have screamed, but he stood rooted in place. The beast reached the sobbing man and snatched him up in its multiple arms.
The ragged scream that came from the sobbing man snapped Sal out of his fear and he cast about looking for something to use as a weapon. He glanced into the bed of the truck and noticed a yellow crowbar, its paint chipped, but it was heavy and solid metal.
Sal grabbed the crowbar and raced toward the man. All fear, logic, and reasoning erased from his mind. The creature towered over him and he was only armed with a crowbar. He was so focused on reaching the man he didn’t see the woman huddle on the ground in front of him, until he tripped over her and hit the pavement hard again.
The crowbar flew from his hands and he felt his temple crack on the asphalt. He groaned and rolled to his feet, the woman was sobbing, but those cries were drowned out by the screams of the man.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Sal called out the apology automatically. He then snatched up the crowbar and limped toward the end of the road.
The man was clutched in the beast’s limbs and it tore chunks from his shoulder. Blood drenched the man’s shirt and he was trying to fight back, but with the pain, blood loss, and all four of the monster’s arms holding him, it amounted to little. His screams were cut off suddenly as the beast ripped the man’s head from his shoulders.
One giant hand gripped the man’s head and another wrapped around its neck. The monster visibly strained and with a snap of skin, bone, and cartilage the man’s head was removed from his body. There was spurt of blood and a gurgle as the head dropped to the ground and was lost in the grass. The monster roared with triumph and began chewing upon the gaping wound where his neck ended.
Sal stopped and felt bile rising. His grip on the crowbar began to shake as fear, horror, and disgust all coursed through him. He had never seen a man’s head ripped from his body, but he’d seen similar things. Now wasn’t the time for panic and fear. He took a shuddering breath and calmed himself down.
The size of the monster and its sheer strength. Sal knew he never had a chance to do anything against it even if he’d gotten to the man in time. A crowbar wouldn’t do much, a gun might have, but he wasn’t armed.
The man was dead and if he didn’t move he would be dead too. Sal eased back, trying to put a few cars between him and the monster. He needed to find the woman he’d tripped over and get to safety. Maybe in one of the vehicles on the road.
The beast saw his movement and dropped the man. The body fell heavily into the grass and chunks of his flesh flopped from the monster’s mouth. He could see those multitude of eyes focus upon him and with a snarl the monster launched itself toward Sal.
Shit, Sal thought.
He knew he was dead. It moved fast for its size and would reach him in seconds. It would tear him apart and it would then come after the woman behind him. The crowbar was not going to do much, but it was better than nothing. Sal braced himself as the monster loped across the grass toward him.
“Run, lady!” Sal shouted, tossing a glance back at the woman who was still lying on the road. “Get out of here!”
The roar of the monster grew louder and Sal shifted his focus. Maybe she would snap out of her shock or maybe she wouldn’t. Either way, he knew he had to buy her time and do what he could against this creature.
The monster never reached him.
A shimmering wall appeared between Sal and the creature. It sprouted up as the monster cross over from the grass and onto the asphalt. Sal saw a thickening of the air in front of him that solidified in an eye blink. The beast was caught jump, its massive form hanging a few feet off the ground. The barely visible barrier sizzled and sparked, and the beast screamed in rage and pain. Sal could see what looked like electricity running across the monster’s body with a glow beginning to grow around it. Then with a clap of lightning the creature was thrown back from the barrier. It flopped a dozen feet away into the grass, the black fur and crimson hide smoking.
The day of horrors and confusions kept rolling on. Sal stood at the end of the road and reached forward, feeling nothing. His hand passed through where the monster had been stopped. There was sparks, lightning, or resistance, just air. There was just so many weird things going on that Sal began to wonder if he should take things at face value.
The beast staggered to its feet and snarled at Sal. It launched itself at the barrier, the dozen feet no hinderance, and Sal scrambled back.
Yet again the monster was stopped. Sal watched as the monster was caught in the barrier, like a fly in a spider’s web. The barrier sparked and lightning flashed across the beast, then it was thrown back into the grass. The air felt heavy and he could smell ozone. The electrical blast was directed at whatever was trying to come onto the asphalt, a protective shielding. He had stood only feet away from on of the monster’s grasping claws, but he hand’t received any shock or injuries from the flash of lightning. Someone the barrier could differentiate between him and the creature.
The monster was hurt, Sal could see. its crimson hide was blacked and burned, he could see the flesh beneath the hide, leaking pinkish fluid that could only be its blood. The monster roared at the barrier and smashed its multiple arms into the ground before grabbing what was left of the dead man and stalking away.
Sal watched in horror and fascination as it made its way toward a cluster of trees and then began crouching down to feed upon the corpse. He felt ill, but continued to watch at the creature.
“What the fuck are you?” he muttered to himself, staring at the monster.
It was defiantly not of Earth. He was no Zoologist, but he’d watch enough Animal Planet to know there were no hulking ten foot crimson man eating creatures on any continent. Was it an alien? If it were an alien, why was it even eating people? What was the barrier? Why did it stop the monster, but he could pass through it?
It didn’t make sense, but Sal didn’t flinch away from the sight. This thing was dangerous, but it couldn’t attack him. Like a lion in a cage, it was only dangerous unless he did something stupid like walking into the grass. He frowned. Who was the one in a cage then?
The monster turned toward him, its maw widening again to show the multiple rows of teeth, but made no move to rush the barrier again.
“One ugly motherfucker, indeed,” he said.
He continued watching the monster. He felt as if he were standing vigil for the poor deceased man. The man had been someone’s son, maybe a farther, a brother, and a friend. Sal felt remorse that he didn’t know the man’s name and that he had probably scared the man into running out into the grass. The least he could do was stand and witness.
Talavano: Level 5
A label floated above the head of the monster. It flashed once and then disappeared. Sal blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. What the hell was a Talavano?
“I agree it isn’t pretty,” a voice said.
Sal turned to see a woman standing beside him. Her face blank of expression and emotion as she stared at the monster. She didn’t seemed terrified or panicked, instead her posture was straight and her eyes hard. She was tall, her skin a dark, and her hair cropped short. A white face mask hung around her neck and she wore hospital scrubs.
“What is going on?” she asked, her attention turning to him.
It was another wave of strangeness that assaulted Sal’s senses. She spoke a language he didn’t know. The words weren’t the Spanish, English, Farsi, and smattering of Mandarin he knew. There was a brief disconnect as the words reached his ears and then he understood what she was saying.
“I-I don’t know,” Sal said.
The woman’s eyes widen a bit and then her brow furrowed. “Why are you speaking Dutch?” she asked. Then blinked. “No, it’s English, but it feels like you’re speaking Dutch.”
Sal looked at her in confusion. Then it hit him, the words she had said to him before had been translated in his mind, they had been translated into Spanish that he had grew up speaking. This was all too weird.
“I don’t speak Dutch,” was all Sal could say.
The woman shook her head. “This fucking day,” she muttered. “I know you’re speaking English, but all I can hear is Dutch,” she added. “It’s like something is changing the words in my head.”
“I’m Sal,” he said. “Alonzo Salazar.”
He extended his hand. The woman looked at him and took his hand in hers.
“I’m Amara Osinbajo.” Her grip was firm. “What the fuck is going on?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Sal said. “Are you a nurse?”
“Doctor,” the woman said, her eyes narrowing. “I was in the middle of preparing for surgery when this all happened. Blue boxes, white light, I heard people screaming before I woke up laying in the middle of a parking lot. Then I heard screaming again.” She used her head to gesture toward the monster.
Sal looked at the beast and the quickly looked away. The sheer strangeness of their situation overshadowed the fact that they stood exposed as a monster out of nightmares made a meal out of a human being. Sure there was a barrier, but still…
He wondered who this lady was, after all she did not seem all that shocked or horrified by the man being eaten by some alien creature. She did say that she was a doctor, perhaps that hardened her to the sight of so much blood.
“I’m either going crazy or I’m dreaming,” the woman said. She raised her left hand and tried pushing her right hand index finger through her palm. Her brow furrowed as nothing happened.
“Then I’m there with you,” Sal replied. “Though this seems too real to be a dream. There’s pain and all.”
The woman gave a tight smile and nodded. “Not a dream then. Where are you from?” she asked.
“Austin, Texas. USA.” Sal replied.
“I was in Maiduguri, Nigeria.” She looked down at her scrubs and sighed, they are dirty and had tears in them. “I guess I’m not in Maiduguri anymore.”
“Or Kansas,” Sal muttered looking around.
“This is some science fiction shit,” the woman pulled off her mask and balled it up into a wad. “We need to notify the authorities. Then we need to figure out where we are and arrange transportation back to our respective homes.”
“I don’t think we can do any of those,” Sal said.
The woman gave him a questioning look. Sal pointed toward the grass and then at a bus with the words Phoenix Metro marked on its side. “I think this is Phoenix, Arizona. I went through there once, I was laid over for half a day and took the opportunity to see some of the city.” He pointed to some palm trees and a couple of roadside orange trees. “This all looks like that place.”
“Never heard of it,” the woman replied.
“Really? Largest city in Arizona, the capital of the state?” Sal shrugged and gestured toward the trees towering in the south. “Anyways, it didn’t have forests like those. The city is in the desert,” Sal said.
“What are you getting at?”
“The road ends at the forest to the south, to our west it ends with this grass, and to the north in about a mile there are more big ass trees. We’re boxed in from the south, west, and north, and probably if we head east we’re going to see more forest or more grass and the road ending again,” Sal said. “Plus, I don’t think we’re on Earth anymore. There’s nothing like that on Earth.”
The woman stared at him and then turned to look at the monster. Another creature had appeared upon the field, it looked like an ostrich, long legs, rotund body, and a long neck, but its skin was reptilian and its head was all teeth and eyes.
The bird monster ducked its head and roared at them. Barbed tentacles flared along the side of its head, slashing about with a mind of their own.
“I think you might be right,” the woman said. Then she added. “Fuck.”