{Feature} Exclusively read the first two chapters from The Ash, the brilliant new sci-fi horror from Dan Soule.


By Dan Soule

‘In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.’

– Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny, the Younger

‘I have heard the languages of apocalypse, and now I shall embrace the silence.’

– Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Endless Nights

And so it begins: the end…

Decree Absolute

The world hadn’t ended, but divorce felt like it. A letter, confirming Constable Jim Castle’s failings as a man, had arrived that morning. The effects of drinking the night before furred his mouth and made his head pound as he sat alone in his police car at the side of the road, staring at the breathalyser in his hands.

With a sigh, he decided against another bitter reminder of his failings and put the breathalyser away. Instead, he threw a handful of Polo Mints in his mouth and crunched them into oblivion. After a swig of water and rubbing at his face, he felt no more refreshed.

The lawyer’s letter, accompanying the decree that outlined the dissolution of his world, lay open on the passenger seat, pinned in place by the bulky CB radio his son, Simon, had given him. Simon had built the short-wave transmitter from scratch with Nigel, Karen’s not-so-new man. That hurt, but the boy was so happy with their creation, and Nigel had diplomatically left them to it. Simon talked at hundred miles an hour, explaining to Jim how they built the transmitter at, pointing out important parts of the circuit board, the soldering Nigel let him do, the knobs, dials, and speakers they’d cannibalised from broken electrical goods bought at a junk shop in Nottingham. And it was all housed in a handmade pine casing Nigel made in his “workshop”, which used to be Jim’s garage. Jim only ever used the garage for its proper function in life: as a limbo for the things he didn’t want to deal with. Over Nigel’s protests of ‘I’m sure your dad won’t want to see that,’ Simon insisted on showing Jim the new and improved dad-cave. The garage was immaculate. Everything had its place. Simon bounded over to the workbench and picked up a bulky CB handset and thrust it into his dad’s hands. ‘We made it for you. That way we can talk whenever we want. Just me and you.’

That was six months ago, when Karen’s bump had started to show. Now, three weeks overdue, and on today of all days, the hospital had scheduled for her to be induced.

The universe was as funny as a road traffic accident, and Jim had seen enough of those. Too many. If he wasn’t at work, he would have a drink. Nothing strong this early. A beer, possibly two, while he caught up on paperwork and got lost in the job.

Lost, he thought, and snorted. ‘And no way back home for James.’ Karen was the only one who called him James. He’d always been Jim, but even at school Karen only ever called him by his given name, like she knew something everyone else didn’t. Eventually, even she forgot what that was, leaving them irreconcilable, according to the letter.

Jim put the window down. The sun was already making the car warm, and the breeze was nice. A red Mini Cooper drove by, registering fifty-seven miles per hour on the speed gun. Three miles under the speed limit on this long stretch of country road. Jim had parked his police car in the layby, making sure he was clearly visible, acting as a reminder as much as a speed trap. This stretch of road leant itself to the joys of speed; stepping on the pedal and
leaning into the winding bends as hedgerows streaked by in a blur of green. Heck, he’d done it as a young man, with Karen in the passenger seat, Oasis blasting on the tape deck of his banged-up Toyota Corolla. The thing could barely hit sixty, but it felt supersonic.

Jim tried to put on talk radio to have the comfort of other voices droning on in the background. But when he pressed the button, BBC Radio Nottingham crackled and hissed with static. He tried to find Radio Two. They might be playing something decent.

Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ stuttered with interference. Implementing the universal fix for everything, Jim gave the console two bangs with the heel of his hand. Nigel would know how to fix it, the prick. Ah, come on, you’re picking on the good guy, Jim boy. So. He’s shagging my missus. Karen’s not your missus anymore though, is she? Hasn’t been for two years. And whose fault is that?

Jabbing at the button, Jim changed stations again. The happy dance beats that blared out unimpeded by static stopped him arguing with himself, and he switched off the radio in disgust.

A silver BMW 3 Series coupe doing sixty-one hit the brakes when he saw Jim’s police car. Jim let it go. Too close to the limit, and the driver could easily contest it. Somewhere a tractor cut grass for haylage. Jim caught a faint whiff of pig-shit on the breeze and closed his window. Digby’s pig farm lay a few miles away. Jim planned to put in an hour here and then head over to an accident black spot on the A614 near Bilsthorpe. Today, he needed it to be a quiet one. Hand out a few tickets, help a few fender benders. As long as there wasn’t a major accident, then traffic duty on the back roads was an easier shift to pull, and Jim needed that.

The Airwave radio on Jim’s chest let out a scream of static. He winced. In his nearly twenty years as a policeman, an Airwave radio had never done that. Jim picked the terminal off his chest, holding it like a large bug with pinching mandibles. A cross between an old mobile phone and a small CB radio, the Airwave looked to be fine. With a frown, Jim went back to watching the road.

A tractor trundled one way, a motorbike the other. A transit van, two lorries loaded with freight, and a handful of cars all drove by obeying the law. It was a slow day with too much time to think. The aching white admonishment from the passenger seat reflected the sunshine, the Decree Absolute, with the lawyer’s letter, glaring at him. Jim tugged it free from under Simon’s CB. The Lion and the Unicorn in one corner. The stamp of the family court in the other. Official. Unemotive. Brief. So brief a letter, considering what it ended: sixteen years of marriage.

Most of them had been good ones, especially at the start, which wasn’t really the start. Karen and Jim were childhood sweethearts. They’d been together since they were sixteen. Twenty- two years. Everyone said it wouldn’t last. But it did, at least for a long while. They’d waited until they’d finished college, and Jim joined the police, before they got married, and even longer before starting a family, which hadn’t been as easy as they thought. Had things started to go wrong then? No. Maybe.

There was a bad RTC the day Karen told Jim she was pregnant with Simon. He was happy, he really was, but jumping for joy after he’d seen a mother and two children obliterated by a truck driver distracted on his mobile phone was too much. The car was a quarter of its original length when pried from the wreckage. It had been sandwiched between a parked bus and the truck, which had rammed into them on the A1, two miles from Newark. From a little
arm in the wreckage, they knew straightaway children were involved. The little fist still clutched a comforter with an elephant’s head. Detective work from the license plate led the police to the ID, and Jim had the responsibility of delivering the news to the husband. When he drove home from his shift, he needed a stiff drink and the anaesthetic of TV reruns. Instead, Karen stood at the door before Jim was even out of the car, fidgeting, barely able to contain herself. She’d bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate. They toasted. Jim put on a good show. Karen only drank a sip. Jim finished the bottle.

‘Papa Blue, it’s Mad Scientist. Over.’ The CB on the passenger seat gave a snap.

Jim picked up the CB and held down the send button. ‘Hey, Si! You’re going to be a big brother today.’

‘Dad, you’re supposed to say “over” when you’re finished.’ A whistle of feedback preceded the static snap.

‘I thought I was Papa Blue, and you didn’t say over… over.’

The CB’s static fizzed and cleared, and Simon’s voice came through. ‘Damn it! Sorry. Can you hear me, Papa B-’ The fizzing drowned Simon out again. ‘-wrong with this?’ More static.

‘Simon… I mean, Mad Scientist, can you hear me? Over.’

The CB squealed and crackled angrily. Jim clicked the send button twice in a muted version of the “hit the consol” solution. The static calmed.

Simon’s voice came through, ‘-don’t know. There’s interference.’

‘Let me have a try.’ That was Nigel, barely audible.

The static dropped in tone, like an old box television set being tuned, and then rose again, bringing with it voices.

‘There, how’s that? Strange. Jim, can you hear us? Over.’

‘I can hear you.’

But they couldn’t hear Jim.

‘We’ll try you again later, Jim.’

And over the top of Nigel, Simon said, ‘What’s that in the sky?’

The CB buzzed with a rising pitch that ended in an abrupt silence.

The Chase

Jim clicked ineffectively at the button on the side of the CB. But he didn’t have time to wonder at Simon’s comment, because a blue Ford Mondeo drove by at seventy-one miles per hour. It was nothing too alarming, but Jim couldn’t let it pass. He quickly put the CB in the passenger footwell, along with the letter, and pulled out onto the road. The Mondeo hadn’t got too far ahead, and Jim closed the distance. However, when he put on his blue lights, the effect was instantaneous.

The Mondeo took off.

Jim matched their speed and hit the button to contact Control.

‘PC Jim Castle in pursuit of a blue Ford Mondeo on the A616 between Caunton and Kneesall. Over.’

Jim’s Airwave answered immediately. ‘Received, standing by.’

The Mondeo put on another burst of speed, hitting close to ninety. Jim could vaguely see two faces looking out of the back window. Their speed, along with the way the heads urgently turned to the driver and then back out of the rear window, told Jim that this wasn’t simply a speeding offence.

They weren’t going to slow down, and Jim put on his siren to join the lights. It didn’t convince them to stop. The after effects of last night’s drinking were pushed aside by the rush of adrenaline. Jim was trained in advanced driving techniques, but that didn’t stop the blood surging through his veins. The thought that alcohol could still be in his bloodstream flickered at the back of his mind. It would only be a problem if there was an accident, and he was
probably under the limit, he lied to himself.

The blue Mondeo took a sweeping corner too wide, and a black Audi four-by-four faced them on the other side of the road. Horns blared, and the Mondeo swerved back on the left side of the road just in time. Jim had already tempered his speed, anticipating the blind spot of the bend, and slid safely past the black Audi, with its driver ashen at the wheel. The Mondeo had lost a step, showing the driver’s experience. The shock of their near miss had
affected them too, and Jim pressed his advantage, closing the distance.

He was near enough now to make out the features of the two men in the back seat. One was a bull of a man, with a shaved head sitting like a cannonball on top of boulders of shoulder muscle, his neck having long since been sacrificed to steroids and the pumping of heavy iron. The other man had short cropped hair on a square head like a pit bull and looked Jim dead in the eye. Now that he made eye contact, the pit bull wasn’t going to be the one that looked away first.

Jim knew these roads well, and there was a tight bend coming up. He eased back a touch, remaining close enough to make them feel they were still being pursued, but giving them space to take a risk to gain the advantage. If they hit that bend with enough speed, they could well end up in the hedgerow. It was a risky calculation. If they did wrap themselves around a tree, Jim would definitely be breathalysed and that would be his career over along with the rest of his marriage. Worse than that, what if some poor bugger was on the other side of the road again, like the black Audi?

Jim’s job was to preserve life, and so his training overrode the adrenaline, and he eased back on the gas a little bit more.

Jim was right, they did take their advantage and press their luck. They took the corner wide and clipped a grass verge, but they kept the road and didn’t meet another car. Jim fully expected to round the bend and to see them trailing off into the distance. Better to call in the cavalry and track these boys down in the long run, than risk anyone including them getting hurt. He put the call in to Control, but his Airwave radio let out another piercing squeal of feedback. When he took the bend, things weren’t as he expected.

The Mondeo was there, still quite away in front of him, but they’d slowed right down. Perhaps they’d blown a tire or wrecked their suspension when they hit the grass. Jim didn’t question his luck, and with blues and twos in full voice, he closed in. He pulled up behind them, assuming they were ready to capitulate, but Jim was still cautious. They didn’t respond, neither slowing or speeding up. They merely maintained a steady forty-five miles an hour. The two people in the back of the car weren’t looking out the rear window anymore, and they weren’t shouting urgently at the driver. Instead, all four suspects were looking out of the right hand side window, and not only looking out, they were looking up. Jim followed their gaze and knew why they were so distracted.

An object streaked across the sky. It could have been mistaken for a small meteor or an asteroid, but it didn’t ignite the atmosphere around it. Instead, it left a contrail of vapour, implying there was some combustion based engine behind it. Jim didn’t know much about engines, not like Nigel and Simon, but he knew enough to realise this, and something more. It was no passenger jet, and it wasn’t travelling parallel to the ground. No, Jim rubbernecked as though he was about to witness the worst Road Traffic Collision he could ever imagine. The contrail was arcing down towards the ground, racing miles away from them and towards the town of Newark-on-Trent, with its population of over thirty-seven thousand souls. Jim and the men in the Mondeo all flinched as the supersonic boom hit them, far in the wake of the projectile.

Nine years ago, Jim had been kitted up in a full hazmat suit and war-gamed a chemical attack. He had spent years on the force, involved in regional and national response exercises for terrorist incidents. All of this was now leading him to a cold conclusion, one that was so awful, he didn’t want to accept it. There had to be some other explanation. This nightmare couldn’t be coming true. Jim was just old enough to remember the 1980s and American movies where the USSR were the stock bad guys, where kids still learnt about the Cold War and intercontinental missiles that could end the world many times over. That all ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one was worried about nuclear war now. But that old fear returned as the contrail drew a line through the sky and to the ground.

There was a moment of silence on impact, as though the world held its breath. Then came the flash of light. Jim had already closed his eyes and turned his head, no longer thinking about driving his police car. He covered his face with his arm and turned away. The ground shook, and a shockwave was coming. A hand of God tearing across the land, the wall of compressed air, brushed away everything in its path.

It hit Jim’s police car and the Ford Mondeo, shattering glass and tossing them from the road.

Stay tuned for Chapters 3 & 4 tomorrow, plus there will be details of a special The Ash offer for the fiends of Kendall Reviews.

Dan Soule

Once Dan is a horror author who was an academic, but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s hometown, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. Dan’s literary fiction has featured in Number Eleven, Storgy, and the Dime Show Review. His science fiction is available in Shoreline of Infinity and Phantaxis. And his horror can be found in Devolution Z, Sanitarium Magazine, Disturbed Digest and Into the Ruins.

Dan’s website is at www.dansoule.com where there is an exclusive ebook of short stories available, plus a classic horror novel.

You can follow Dan on Twitter @WriterDanSoule

Dan’s Linktree is HERE

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