Sharon screams, and then the thing is upon us before I can even react. It comes lunging from the smoke, and all I get is the impression of something huge and bizarre, bleach-white, armour plated, some kind of troll or golem: human-shaped, but out of all proportion, its head nothing more than a smooth fan of bone-coloured shell, six blood red eyes staring out from recessed slits. It rears up and strikes out with one massive limb, and the great curved claw passes so close to me that I feel the wind of it, catch a sharp scent of something rotten. And then Sharon is ripped from my grasp like a toy from the hand of a child. For one brief second I see the monster's great claw wrapped around her middle, and then it's gone, loping off into the fog, Sharon screaming in its arms.
I don't move. I can't. My legs have turned to empty air. There's a pit yawning in my gut. It's all happened so suddenly that I can't take it in. That thing, it can't possibly be real. No. There's no way. But even as these thoughts flash through me head Sharon is still screaming, still crying out for help, still being carried away from me by that impossible creature.
I find that my back is pressed against the wall. I stand up, sway a little, but catch myself. "Sharon," I say, my voice a tiny whimper. I'm still staring fixedly at the patch of smog into which she was carried.
Move, you idiot, my brain is screaming at me. Do something, go rescue her before it's too late. But I know that there's nothing I can do. Not me. Not me, David, the accountant, twenty-five year old David who's lost and scared and helpless and just wants to go home. Not David the coward, who left his colleagues to die while he ran to save his own skin. Not David who ran again when he heard the noises in the car park, who has done nothing but run since this whole awful thing began.
I just can't do it.
"Sharon!" This time it's a shout. A wild yell into the obscuring smoke. I can still hear her screams, more desperate than ever, and more distant. The sound of them is like glass in my throat. I take a hesitant step out into the street, and then another.
And then I'm running again. Not away. Not towards safety, but towards those screams. Towards Sharon. I dodge around an overturned car, jump over buried lumps that might be rubble or might be bodies. I clamber over a massive pile of bricks and concrete, pass shattered storefronts, skirt around a place where the road has broken up into thick, jagged plates.
Sharon is louder now. I'm close. My heart is thundering, and I feel lightheaded with adrenaline. I can hear the croaking hiss that I know now must be the call of those monstrous things. It's close now. So close. I put my back to a wall and crouch low to the ground, creeping forward through the fog like an animal. At the end of the road an overturned car lies across my path. I kneel and peer over it into the dark. What I see there makes my heart stop cold.