“So, it’s safe then?” the doctor asked Sal. 

“I suppose so. The monster couldn’t get through the barrier. It just hung there and got zapped. Repeatedly” Sal replied.  The first monster had stopped its meal and roared a challenge to the second monster, after few moments Sal read a tag. 

Riskar. Level 3.

The bird monster, riskar, responded with its own challenge, but then scampered away toward the forest. The talavano returned to its meal, the wet sounds of chomping meat the only sound that cross the distance. 

“That’s impossible, you understand,” the doctor said. 

Sal shrugged. “All of this is impossible, but it’s happening.” 

The doctor nodded and then sighed. “We need to get out of here,” she said. 

“We seem to be safe if we stay on this side of the barrier, but who knows if it’ll last or if it’ll stay up forever. We need a defensible place, food, water, and shelter, Then we need to find other people and organize,” Sal said. His mind beginning to try and formulate a plan. 

There couldn’t just be the four of them, there had to be more people around. Sal looked behind him at the expanse of cars and began to notice movement, other people walking among the vehicles in a dazed fashion. 

“That’s more of an outline than a plan,” the doctor said. 

Sal shrugged. “What do they normally do in disaster movies?” he asked. 

“Movies?’ the doctor shook her head. 

“Do you have a plan?” he asked.

“I can help run an under resourced and overcrowded hospital,” the doctor said. “Other than that, I can play the violin.” 

“We need to find you a violin,” Sal smiled briefly and the doctor responded in kind. 

“I told you that I woke up in a parking lot,” the doctor said. Sal nodded. “That parking lot was in front of a grocery store. One of those ungodly big American ones, all brick with a couple of doors in front, and a sign that said Burnside’s Grocery Emporium.” 

Sal smiled at her words he knew what she was talking about. He’d seen those stores or similar stores in other cities and in Austin. They were built like a warehouse with only singular entrance in the front and loading bays in the rear storage areas that weren’t connected to the store proper.  It would make a decent place to defend. 

“Seems like the place to go,” Sal said. The doctor nodded. “First we have to find…” 

He paused and looked around, trying to find the woman he’d tripped over. She was no where to be seen. 

Burnside’s Grocery Emporium was what Sal expected it to be. It was a big rusty orange brick building. The garish signage covered an entire wall and there were only two sets of sliding doors into the building. A large overhang created a covered walkway in front of the store, it was lined with grocery carts, vending machines, and a couple of people standing around looking confused. 

The grocery store was apart of a shopping center. A massive parking lot was shared by a dozen businesses.  The grocery store anchored the southwest corner of the shopping center and the other businesses spread out in an “L” shape with a burger joint anchoring the northeast section of the center and connecting to the northbound Wilson Ave. 

The back west end of the grocery store was only fifty feet from the edge of the world, but there was a six foot high brick wall that rose up five feet from the edge.  Sal was surprised to see a gas station bearing the Burnside logo and near the intersection was a building that bore the sign Quik Med Urgent Care. Sal had crossed that intersection and hadn’t even notice either of them. 

He shook his head as he followed the doctor toward the grocery store.  By now people had spotted them and were watching them. Even the people just standing among the unmoving cars watched them. Sal felt odd by the looks, but assumed since they seemed to be the only people moving with purpose, they stood out. 

They reached the doors to the supermarket and Sal looked to the doctor. She looked back at him. 

“What?” she asked. 

“Go for it,” he said. 

“What?”

“Take charge. Lead,” Sal said. 

“ME?” 

“Uh, yeah. Who else?” 

“I’m not going to take charge,” she said. “I don’t like people.”

“You’re a doctor, a surgeon…” Sal began. 

“I cut people open and pull our mostly shrapnel and bullets,” she said. “I cut all these people up, if you think that’ll help them.” She glared at him. “You came up with the plan, now enact it.”

“It was more of an outline,” Sal replied. 

They stood there staring at one another and Sal noticed people heading in their direction. He sighed. 

“I don’t want this responsibility,” he said. 

“Those that seek to help others, not out of vanity or a desire of glory, are those that should take up the mantle,” a voice said. 

The doctor and Sal both stepped back from the man at the same moment.   Sal spotted the tense look that flashed across the doctor’s face before her fists and stance moved into a defensive one. Her form was loose and her weight distributed to counter an attack. This woman knows what she’s doing, Sal thought. 

“I mean no harm,” a man said. He was a short Asian man, his skin was a leathery brown, and he wore bulky red and gold robes. Sal didn’t know his nationality but the outfit screamed Buddhist monk. Discovery Channel to the rescue. 

The doctor loosened up, but the wariness didn’t leave her eyes. 

“Hello, I’m Amara Osinbajo,” she said to the man.

“Hello. I’m Sal, Alonzo Salazar.” 

There was a kindness to the man’s face even though he wasn’t smiling and intelligence shown in his eyes. The man said nothing for a moment and then reached forward and shook both the doctor and Sal’s hands. 

“Passang Tshering,” he said.  “It’s nice to meet you both. Sorry about eavesdropping on your conversation.  Do you happen to know where we are?” 

“I’m guessing you’re not from Phoenix, Arizona?” the doctor asked. 

The monk’s eyebrows rose a bit and he looked around. “No. I was in San Francisco International Airport, originally I’m from Bhutan,” he said. 

“We don’t know what happened to us or where we are.  Technically this,” Sal gestured to the buildings and streets, “was a part of Phoenix, Arizona, but from what we have witnessed we are not on Earth.” 

The monk took in the information and nodded slowly. “That is unfortunate,” he said. “I had hoped to return to my home since I’ve been gone so long.” 

The doctor and Sal exchanged looks. 

The monk shook himself from his reverie and looked at the two. “I suppose you have a plan?” he asked. 

“More of an outline,” Sal said. 

“Better than nothing,” the doctor said. 

The monk nodded.  “Without focus, people panic.” He looked at the mining people.  “If this is a disaster as you stated, then only together can we make it through it. Hand in hand, helping one another.” 

Sal sighed. He didn’t want to do this. A memory threatened to rise up from the depths of his mind and he clamped down hard on it. He took a deep breath. The doctor was watching him and the monk seemed to be also.  There were probably dozens of others more qualified and able to orangish things, people better than him. Yet those people weren’t here. 

“Alright,” he said. “Alright. I need help though.”

“Of course,” the two chorused. 

“We’ll be using this supermarket as a base of operations. It has food and water for the time being, the building will provide shelter and, if we block all the entrances and exits properly, defense. We’ll need to start organizing, inventory of the stuff we have, the people who come, and what they can do to help.  Find people, get them working, keep them from panicking and fighting.” 

The two nodded and began walking to the doors of the supermarket. The electricity was off, but they managed to push the doors opened as they were unlocked. Sal looked around again and spotted a yellow SUV with the words Security on it.  The door of the vehicle was open and the keys were in the ignition. 

Sal shook his head at the strangeness of it all. Everyone had just vanished and replaced by the people here now. He found what he was looking for. A vehicular public address system. The PA system was integrated into the car and a mic hung from a velcro strip easily accessible by the driver. 

The SUV started easily, the radio was on but it only produced static. Sal tried scanning for any radio station and found nothing. He hadn’t expected to find anything so he turned it off. He flipped the switch of the PA system on and got out of the security truck. He paused a moment after looking at dashboard controls, flipped a switch that caused the yellow rotating light on top of the truck to start flashing. 

It immediately caught people’s attention. 

“Hello,” Sal said into the microphone. It squawked and he adjusted it. “Hello,” he said again. 

People were watching him. Their eyes dazed and listless. It had been early evening in Austin when he had been taken and everyone else seemed to be on different timezones. There were people in everything from workwear to sleepwear, but they all shared the same dead gaze.  Sal took a glance down at his own clothing. He had been going to the gym and still wore the workout clothes he’d left home with. Sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt, with his phone strapped to his arm and trailing earphones.  

“Hello,” Sal said for the third time. Feeling a slight rise of unease. Public speaking wasn’t his thing, but he wasn’t terrified of it as some people. “My name is Alonzo Salazar.” Sal paused, wondering how he was going to go about doing this. Tell them everything he assumed, lie, or dodge the truth? “I need you all to gather around. You guys in the back,” Sal pointed to a couple of people at the far end of the parking lot, “if you see anyone tell them to come over here.” 

“What’s going on?” a short dark woman asked. She spoke Spanish. 

“I’m not entirely sure what’s happening,” Sal said. 

“Where is my wife!” A big African man called out. 

“I don’t know,” Sal said. 

As others came closer and heard the shouted questions, they too began shouting their own questions.  The dazed look was fading from them, now it was being replaced by their fear and anger. Sal sighed, knowing this wasn’t going to end well if he didn’t get a hold of the situation. 

“Quiet!” he yelled into the mic. The mounted loudspeaker of the PA system squealed and the gathering people flinched from the noise. “Hold off on your questions for now.” More people were coming and they were looking at him in a mixture of anger and fear. “Look, I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know who did this to us. All I know is that we’re in a small portion of the city of Phoenix, Arizona. That outside of this city there are dangerous creatures.” The pronouncement caused a stir and voices began rising again. “Let me tell you what we know and we can figure out the rest together.” 

Sal spent the next hour trying to contain the people. It was like herding cats, constant questions were shouted, anger and hostility were in the faces of a lot of people, they were scared and he was becoming the focus of their anger since he seemed to be in charge. Too many things were strange, from understanding the languages people were speaking, to the strange city and weather, and a lot more people were still in a state of shock. 

He wasn’t proud of himself, but he took advantage of that shock. There was still a fine balance of people who were scared and angry, people who didn’t know how to feel, and the shocked and dazed people.  If it began swaying too much one way, Sal knew it would all end badly. 

The less angry people headed on into the supermarket to talk with the doctor and the monk. He spotted the two setting up a table in front of the doors of the supermarket, they had a dark haired woman with them and seemed to be interviewing people as they stopped before the table. 

At least there was some organization. He’d just been dodging questions and trying to tell people about the monsters and the end of the city for the last hour. No one believed him at first, but some people had walked to the edge and seen creatures out there.  That had brought about another round of panic and fear, nearly infecting everyone in the parking lot. 

Sal wondered how this was going to work out, if he did manage to get people somewhat working together. They were all from different parts of the world, different religions, different cultures, different views on things, there was no sense of community, no one trusted each other because they didn’t know each other, they were all strangers lumped together in this crisis. 

The only good thing to come out of it was that the group that Sal had marked as troublemakers, the angry, the scared, the tough guys that frowned at every word he spoke, weren’t helping one another or banding together. Their unacquainted nature didn’t have them grouping up, but like finds like. He pushed it aside as a problem for a later date. 

The crowd that stood before the security truck had thinned, most people standing together in groups talking with one another or standing around looking at places. Sal followed a few gazes and saw people looking at the abandoned stores, there were plenty in the shopping center. He spotted two restaurants, an electronics store, a cell phone store, a shipping store, a barber, tax accountant, and a smoke shop. 

He could see people moving around in those stores. It had been evening so the stores themselves were opened to the public, which meant anyone who wanted could walk in. He didn’t know how to feel about it, if they were left to their own devices would people start looting? There was the old cliche about the end of the world and people smashing windows and running off with TVs, but he didn’t know if that would happen here. 

Where would they run off to? He wondered as he saw a man digging through a shopping cart whose owner had vanished. The man took out a 12 pack of beer from the cart and began drinking it, sitting on the trunk of a nearby car. 

He had to get on security. There was no way of telling how long they would be here, if it were days, weeks, or possibly forever. That thought was too abstract to focus on so Sal pushed it away.  Food, water, and perishables needed to be stored away safely so people wouldn’t rush and grab what they could.  The phrase “A person is smart, people aren’t” flashed in his head. 

Right now there was going to be some waste. He knew that, so the guy chugging beer or a woman rummaging through a car, or some kid running in and out of the shipping store wasn’t a problem.  He need to focus on organizing people and then they would take care of the rest in short order. 

Sal decided to follow the rummaging woman’s lead and turned off the security truck. He saw that the gas gauge was at full and pocketed the keys. It was a large key ring, probably also containing the keys to the grocery store and other businesses in the shopping center. He checked the interior and found nothing in the seats and glovebox, except some energy drinks and a pack of cigarettes. 

The storage area of the SUV held a security guard duty belt, a first aid kit, a battery jumper kit, some road flares, and a small bag.  The duty belt was a simple heavy nylon belt with a couple of pouches. Sal guessed having a security guard armed with a gun wasn’t this shopping center’s style. The pouches held a small bottle of pepper spray, a LED flashlight, two sets of handcuffs, a pocket knife, a Zippo lighter, and latex gloves. The small bag held miscellaneous items, a clear poncho, a plain blue hoodie, a pair of black t-shirts with security written on them, an extra can of pepper spray, and a collapsible baton. The shirts and the hoodie were made for a much larger man, 3XL. 

Sal pulled on the hoodie, it was big on him.  The day was bright and sunny, but it still held a chill that made him think that tonight would be a lot colder. It reminded him of either early spring or late fall. The duty belt went into the bag and Sal looked around the remainder of the SUV and found nothing but papers and manuals.

He pulled the small duffel bag over his shoulder, closed the SUV, and clicked the lock button on the key remote. The truck beeped twice and he heard the clunk of the locks engaging. He tried the door and it was locked. 

He headed to the supermarket and saw that the doctor and the monk were both gone and a dark haired woman and a teenage girl sat behind a table as a line of people stretched before them.  They seemed to be taking down information and the girl had a laptop and was using her connected phone to take pictures of each person as they moved through the line. 

A large older Indian man stood watching the two women work. He leaned against a yellow trash can, smoking a cigarette, and scanning the crowd. Sal walked to him. 

The man looked him over and slowly nodded in greeting. 

“I’m Sal,” he said. 

“Amarjot,” the man said.  “You the bossman or something?” 

“Yeah,” Sal said.  He shoved down his near automatic need to be self-effacing and modest.  He knew if he didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing, if he didn’t act like he had a plan, then things would fall apart. A group of strangers and distrust would be hard enough to deal with, but without confidence in their self appointed leader, shit would go downhill real fast. 

“The doctor, Amara, said to keep an eye on these girls,” Amarjot said. “Make sure no one messes around with them.” 

“You’re security?” Sal asked. 

The man shrugged. “The monk said we should all help where we can. Guess I look scary enough to keep people in line.”

Sal had to admit the older man had that tough guy vibe going on. He had a sparse beard, his eyes were hooded and dark, and his shoulders were wide and arms thick. He looked like someone who’d done a lot of hard work in his life. An image of his own father flashed in his mind. 

Amarjot wore heavy workbooks, dirty cargo pants, and his shirt was thin and worn stained with the gray dust of concrete. A laborer or construction worker. Sal pulled off his bag and rummaged through it. 

“If you’re the security for now,” he said offering him the black shirt. The man took it and unfolded it. He grunted and pulled it on over his dirty shirt. It was big, but not too big. Sal pulled out the extra pepper spray and collapsible baton, and handed them over to him. “Know how to use these?” 

“Don’t need them,” the man said. He picked up a three foot metal pipe he had leaning at his side. 

“Okay, then,” Sal said putting the items back into the bag.  He looked to the people in line, they mostly seemed unfocused and followed the person before them. “How are they doing?”

“Scared and confused,” the man said. 

“How are you?” 

The man looked at him and frowned for a moment. “Fine,” he said.  The two men looked at one another for a moment longer. “I was working. Didn’t have family. Didn’t have money. Didn’t have much to lose.” The man put out his cigarette in the ashtray on top of the garbage can. “The doctor and the monk said I should be out here. Its work. It keeps me from not thinking too much about what’s going on. Keeps me focused. A man without work is a bad thing.” 

Sal nodded at the words. Idle hands make the devil’s work. He own father shared the man’s philosophy.  He’d also been a tough man, he’d also been a tough man to work with.  Sal brushed aside the worries that he knew would consume him if he dwelled on it. Carmen, his parents, his siblings, his entire family. Those could wait until things settled down. 

 “I’m going to head inside and check on the doctor and the monk,” Sal said. “Holler if you need anything.” 

Sal watched the woman work, the dark haired woman caught his eye and nodded to him, her expression focused. He nodded back and hitched the bag on his shoulder. Everything seemed to be running fine out here. 

His gaze then fell upon a man sitting on a bench. A pudgy Asian man who seemed to be staring off into space. In his left hand he held a bag of chips and his right hand seemed to be waving in front of his face. He seemed to be reading something. 

Normally Sal would have assumed he had cracked due to the stresses of the day, but a memory welled up from hours previously.  Before the black sky, white lights, an arriving here he had tried swiping at the blue boxes when they appeared, could this man be doing something similar? His eyes scanned the crowd, a lot of people seemed to be staring off into space but none were moving their hands before their face. 

He walked toward the man, the security guard watching him. The man on the bench continued to be absorbed in whatever he was doing as Sal stood before him. He paused a moment and shook the man’s shoulder. 

“Hey, you okay?” Sal asked. 

The man blinked and and seemed startled by Sal’s presence. 

“What do you want?” There was a tinge of fear in the man’s voice. 

“Nothing, man. Just wondering if you’re cool?” Sal asked, crouching down before the man and meeting him eye level. 

“I’m… I’m okay,” the man said. 

“I’m Sal,” he said, extending his hand. 

The man hesitated and shook it. “I’m Daisuke Yumiguchi,” he said. 

Sal nodded, the man glanced aside, unable to hold the eye contact. “Okay, Daisuke. What are you doing?” he asked. 

Daisuke looked a bit confused, but also panicked. “What do you mean?” he asked. 

“You’re moving your hands before you and you’re spacing out,” Sal remarked. “Its like you’re interacting with those blue boxes we all saw.” 

Fear twitched across the man’s face and his eyes moved around him, seemingly trying to find an escape or an ally. The guard turned his attention toward Sal and watched them without saying anything. 

“I’m looking at my status page,” the man finally said. 

“Status page?” Sal asked. 

Daisuke’s hand seemed to moved automatically as he shoved a handful of potato chips into his mouth and chewed.  “The message, its like from a light novel. The hero gets taken to another world and it uses game mechanics to defeat some evil.” Fleck of chips scattered across his clothing. 

He’s definitely lost it, Sal thought. 

He sighed and rose to his feet. He wondered how many people would crack from this whole thing. Everyone’s hold on their fear and sanity was eggshell thin. A poke and all of it would come crumbling down. 

“No, just think it.” Daisuke said, rising to his feet.  “Think ‘Staus’.”

Sal shared a look with the guard and gave Daisuke a thin smile. “Just think it,” he said. 

“Focus on the words. ‘Status’.” 

“Status,” Sal said. 

His vision populated with blue boxes. 

“Jesus Christ!” Sal cried, staggering back. 

NAME: ALONZO “SAL” SALAZAR

AGE: 24

RACE: HUMAN

LEVEL: 00

HEALTH: 120/120

ATRIBUTES

STRENGTH – 2

STANIMA – 2

CONSITUTION – 2

PERCEPTION  – 3

AGILITY – 2

DEXTERITY – 1

WILLPOWER – 3

INTELLIGENCE – 2

WISDOM – 1

CHARISMA – 2

EMPATHY – 2

LUCK – 1

The blue boxes were opaque enough that Sal saw Daisuke smirk at his reaction. The guard watched impassively, but his hands were on his metal pipe.

“What is this?” Sal asked. 

“Your status,” Daisuke said. 

“Like in a game?” Sal said hesitantly. He’d played his fair share of video and computer games in his life.  

Daisuke nodded excitedly, another hand going for more chips. “Just like a game!”

There were small addition icons next to each of the stats on the screen. He touched them and a message flashed across his vision in red. 

NO ATTRIBUTE POINTS AVAILABLE

He noticed the status screen was broken up into folders, smaller tabs labelled SKILLS, TITLES, and ACHIEVEMENTS.

He selected SKILLS and within the folder was a line of text. 

Insight – Level 01

He tapped the word insight, hoping he’d get some kind of definition about it. Usually in the games he’d played, they would give a heads up on what each skill or attribute meant. The words INSIGHT flashed once and nothing happened. He tried again and there was still no response. 

He tapped the TITLES tab and it was empty. He tried the ACHIEVEMENTS and that too held nothing. 

Another problem arose as Sal looked at the information. It covered a large portion of his view and although it was opaque enough to see through, it was still hindering his vision. 

“How to I get rid of it?” Sal asked Daisuke. 

“Just think, Close Status.” 

He did and the blue boxes vanished away. 

Sal took a breath. He walked to the bench and sat down, his head in his hands. He took another breath and looked at the man. 

“Is this a game?” 

His thoughts latched onto the man that had died at the hands of the monster. He had seen him ripped apart, he hadn’t been able to do anything.  He had just stood there. The man had died. The man had died because this was a game? 

“Is this a fucking game?” Sal rose to his feet, feeling anger and rage boiling in him. 

Daisuke staggered back, fear on his face. “I-I…” he stuttered but couldn’t focus on his words. 

The guard stepped forward.  His expression was unreadable, but he had the pipe across one shoulder. 

Sal sat back down. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to scream and yell. Something had done this to all of them. Something had transported all of them to this place. Something had killed that man. And that something had set it up all like a fucking game. 

He held his head in his hands. Breathing deeply. 

He looked up to the guard and the man. 

“I’m sorry about the outburst,” he said. 

The guard nodded and looked away. He suddenly stiffened and Sal followed his gaze. 

Across the parking lot was a person carrying an AK-47 and they were walking towards them.

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