Chasm by Stephen Laws

Sneak Peek Extract: Prologue One Year Later

Jay took the street corner at sixty and struggled to control the car as it slewed up onto its front and rear left-hand side wheels. He’d seen the stunt performed by experts on television a lifetime ago, couldn’t believe that it was happening to him now . . . and yelled out loud in panic as he wrestled with the wheel. The car wobbled and swerved up onto the pavement, clipping the corner of a building and shearing away the trim in a welter of buzz-saw sparks. Jay wrenched at the wheel again to prevent the car from being flipped onto its back by the impact, and it slammed back down onto its suspension, cracking the rear window. And now the wheel was spinning madly in his hands as the car swerved all over the road, the headlights flashing over ruined and looted buildings.

He couldn’t lose control now.

Not with the Vorla somewhere behind, hurtling through the night after him. He could feel it rushing after the car, could feel his skin crawling and knew how badly it wanted to get him.

“Jesus . . . ”

A rubbish bin bounced onto the hood, disgorging crap all over the windscreen. Jay hit the wipers, cleared enough space through rotting vegetables and fruit to see that if he continued on down this street, it would take him straight to the edge of the Chasm. Pulling hard over to the right, he took the car around the corner of another burned-out building and finally got the vehicle on the straight. That’s when he saw the Vorla in his rear-view mirror, exploding around that last street corner in its hunt for him. The tyres screeched. Hearing the sound, the Vorla gushed across the street in his direction. Jay slammed his foot down hard on the accelerator and took another corner at speed. He didn’t know where the hell he was now. Could he swerve the car around, aim the headlights at the damned thing? But what then? His only hope was to put enough distance between him and it, abandon the car and try to make it on foot.

But it can smell you, Jay. It can smell the scent of your fear. It’ll just keep on following that scent.

“Fuck it!”

The car screeched past the burned-out front of a grocery store, its valuable contents long since destroyed or looted—and then Jay cried out aloud again when he saw what was in the street before him.

He slammed on the brakes.

There were two—no, three—people in the middle of the street, frozen in the headlights. They had been hurrying across in the darkness, but had frozen when they’d heard the sounds of screeching tyres getting nearer and nearer. Unsure of which way to run, waiting in terror to see if the danger would pass them by, their fear had immobilised them. One of them was holding out his or her hands in an instinctive “Stop!” gesture as the car screeched and slid, with smoke rising from its tyres. Jay wrenched the wheel hard over and the car hit the pavement hard. His hands flew from the wheel to protect his face as the car exploded through the plate-glass windows of a fashion store. Bouncing and jerking with glass exploding on the roof and past the windows. The impact winded Jay; the seatbelt constricting his chest. He coughed and gagged for air.

One of the headlights had shattered, but the other still glared into the store. Suddenly, it seemed that the car was surrounded by human figures, all frozen in grotesque poses, their angular shadows all around him.

And there was a severed human arm on the hood of the car.

No, not a real human arm. It was the arm of a shop dummy, a department-store mannequin. At last, he realised that there were mannequins all around him, some of them smashed to pieces by the car as it came through the window.

Was the arm on the hood somehow smoking?

No, the smoke wasn’t coming from the arm. It was coming from under the hood of the car. Something had ruptured there. Now smoke was rising in front of the cracked windscreen, and he could smell the petrol.

There was a blur of movement in the wing mirror and his door was suddenly yanked open—and now Jay could see the people that he had nearly run down. These were not people that he knew. These were other survivors: two men and a young woman, in rags and with a look of horror on their faces that he knew only too well. They were starved. The older man had pulled open his door while the other two clambered around to the other side of the car.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” snapped the older man, jabbing at him with a rusted iron railing. “One of those murdering bastards!”

“You’ve got . . . ” Jay struggled to find his voice. “You’ve got . . . to get off the street!” Wincing at the pain in his whiplashed neck, he looked fearfully back out onto the street, knowing what could not be far behind. “It’s coming after me . . . ”

“We’ve been hiding here for a year,” said the old man angrily, jabbing with the railing again. Up close, Jay could see that he wasn’t old at all. The dirt and the scarring just made him look that way. “Hiding in these ruins for a whole bloody year, while you and your kind have hunted the others down like animals. Now, we’ve got one of you, haven’t we? Let’s see how you like it, you bastard!”

“I’m not one of them,” gasped Jay, slapping out at the iron railing. “And you’ve got to get off the street. Now!

The woman had reached the passenger door. Did she believe him?

“You must have something to eat,” she gasped. “It doesn’t matter what. Anything. We’ve been hiding all this time. Please, you’ve got to . . . ”

There was a sound from the street. A rumbling murmur, like the distant thunder of an approaching storm. The Vorla was coming.

“Get out of the street!” yelled Jay, finding his breath and startling the woman. “Hide!”

“We’re sick of hiding!” yelled the younger man, suddenly yanking the passenger door open and clawing inside. Jay grabbed the shotgun lying on the passenger seat, raising it awkwardly in a one-handed grip.

“Back off!”

And then the older man lunged into the car, jabbing with the railing as the younger man tried to yank the shotgun out of his hands.

“We only want food!” screamed the woman.

Jay kicked out at the older man, tried to jam his elbow back into that blackened face as the younger man finally seized the shotgun barrel. Somewhere beyond, the young woman was screaming.

“You idiots!” yelled Jay.

His finger tightened involuntarily on the trigger. The explosive roar within the car was more than deafening. It stunned the senses of all three as the windscreen was blown out in an explosive spray of glass shards. The girl’s screaming became hysterical, but Jay was the first to recover. The younger man had recoiled in shock as, with both hands on the recovered shotgun, Jay jabbed the stock viciously into the older man’s face. He grunted and slithered away from the door as Jay scrambled quickly out of the car, kicking him out of the way. Banging the gun barrel down across the car roof, he pointed it directly at the younger man on the other side. He staggered away from the car, eyes wild, and held his hands up in surrender. The woman sobbed uncontrollably, both hands clasped to her face and hopping from shredded foot to shredded foot on the broken glass that littered the destroyed storefront. Jay stood aside as the older man pulled himself up against the side of the car. Clutching his bloodied face he lurched hand over hand around the car to join the others. Now, the smell of petrol was overpowering, making Jay gag. They began heading back into the street.

“Not that way!” hissed Jay, rubbing at his neck. He looked around at the jumble of fashion dummies lying scattered over the store carpet. Their tangled limbs made it look like some bizarre, bloodless slaughter had taken place in here. “There must be another way out of here. Follow me . . . ”

But when he turned back, his attackers had fled back into the street, out of sight.

He started after them.

And then he heard that familiar, sickening sound.

Like the sound of a crowd mumbling; or the underground rumbling of some poisonous river. The sound that was like a million whispering voices.

Moments later, the two men and their woman companion began to scream in terror and agony. High-pitched, whooping cries of torment.

Jay felt ill, as if he might vomit. Swallowing hard, he backed carefully away from the car, trying to avoid standing on glass and giving away his presence. The sounds continued, rising in agony. But the street outside was still empty. Whatever was happening was taking place just out of his range of vision, and for that he was grateful.

Something ignited under the hood of the car with a soft whump! The hood jarred open an inch and smoke began to gush into the department store. Blue fire was surging and roaring in the engine. Jay saw drops of liquid blue fire dropping to the floor beneath the car, igniting a spreading lake of burning petrol.

Frantically, he looked around for a way out and could find none.

Should he run back out onto the street and take his chance there?

Jay heard the thousand-thousand, whispering, hungry voices out there as the Vorla fed eagerly, taking its insane pleasure from the hideous torment that was being inflicted on its latest victims. The voices were still racked in agony, but somehow muted and further away—as if they had been lifted, and absorbed.

Christ, no! Not back out there!

Should he stay here in the store, take shelter, and hope that he wouldn’t be burned alive?

Flames began to leap around the car as Jay sprinted across the store, leaping over the jumbled dummies. He whirled as the flames illuminated the interior. He could feel the pounding of his heart in his chest and his throat when he saw the Exit door sign on the other side of the store. Still clutching the shotgun, he ran to it.

Please God, after everything that’s happened. Let that door be open. Let it be OPEN!

Part of him refused to believe it when that door did swing open.

Flames from behind illuminated the small alleyway beyond, his silhouette leaping gigantically ahead of him. There was only the sound of surging flame behind him now, the noises of feeding and torment drowned. He swung the door shut.

And in the same instant, the car exploded with a shuddering roar. Off to his left, a store window cascaded into the darkness around him, raining fire and a shower of broken glass.

Something beyond the store began to scream.

Something that was not human.

Jay ran down the alley as smoke began to drift behind him. There were double-gates ahead in the gloom, but he wouldn’t have to climb them. The bolts were easily withdrawn and in the next moment, he was out onto a side street and running as fast as he could.

The sounds of screaming faded behind him.

The whispering, obscene voices were gone.

But as he ran, Jay knew that the danger was far from over.

He had to find somewhere to rest, somewhere to orientate himself. Somewhere he could work out in his mind the implications of everything that had happened since the nightmare of Day One, and just what the hell he was going to do to get away from the Vorla and back to the others.

He had no idea how far he’d run, knew that he could only go so far in any one direction before he reached the brink of the Chasm again. When he saw the unbroken shop frontage of an electricals shop, and could also see that the door was open, he knew that he could run no further. The poor bastards back there had probably ended up saving his life and buying him some time. Not to mention the burning car. He staggered through the doorway, only pausing to look back to make sure that the horde of voices and the darkness was not sweeping up the street after him. There was no relief in the desolate quiet of the empty street. It could come anytime, anywhere. Without warning.

Deep inside the shop, surrounded by shelves of silent televisions, DVD recorders and music centres, Jay slumped to the floor and dropped the shotgun at his side. He sat for a long time, just getting his ragged breathing back to normal again, feeling the blood pounding in his temples and his ears. Letting it all settle down.

But the deep, icy knot of anxiety would not go away.

And then he saw the dictation machines on the shelf beside him. Leaning over, he picked one up.

Leaning over, he picked one up.

There were batteries inside, and a tape. When he looked more carefully, he could see other packets of batteries; other boxes of blank tapes.

He smiled grimly.

“Jay O’Connor,” he said in a cracked voice. He looked at the dictation machine in his hand for a long time, weighing up. “This is Your Life.”

He pressed the record button.

And began to speak.

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