Read Tabitha Online

Authors: Andrew Hall

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Superheroes, #Science Fiction, #Alien Invasion, #Genetic Engineering, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Superhero

Tabitha (13 page)

BOOK: Tabitha
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‘That’s it?’ she
asked the gun, wiggling a grey finger inside in case there were any more
bullets hidden away. She’d told the man to empty his pockets, once she had the
rifle pointed at him. He hadn’t been carrying any more bullets though. Tabitha
sighed at the meagre ammunition in her palm, and slotted each bullet back into
the magazine. She pushed the bolt back in, and turned the handle down to lock
it. The switch behind the scope must have been the safety. There was always a
safety switch; the movies told her so. It was always on when the inexperienced
bad guy tried to shoot the seasoned good guy. Tabitha pushed the safety up, so
that she didn’t go shooting a third of her bullets by accident. So all those
loud beautiful blockbusters had been useful for something after all, she told
herself, despite her mum’s opinions to the contrary. The thought of her bit
into Tabitha’s heart.

Tabitha zipped
her hoodie up and stretched her stiff legs. The sun was setting; before long
the sky had turned plum purple. She slung the rifle across her back, slid her
new hunting knife into its sheath on her belt, and left the river behind in the
gathering gloom.

She walked on
through the trees as the stars came out one by one; specks of silver sand on a
field of black velvet. One sore foot in front of the other, she trudged on
through the night; tripping on roots and catching at sudden saplings in her
way, blind to all obstacles in the inky dark. She wandered on until she left
the trees behind, and the soil gave way to tall grass brushing against her
sleeves. There was only the starry sky above her now; no more forest to block
her view. She’d never seen so many stars before. These were the stars that
showed themselves far away from the city lights, where there was only the pure
dark of the countryside. There weren’t any city lights any more, she reminded
herself. Now all of it was country dark. She went cautiously out in the endless
grass, watching and listening for anything out there in the black. She walked
on until it became a blind meditation. Listening to the rustling grass running
over her boots. The clicking bats above. Her own breaths, shallow at first,
until she sank her shoulders and reassured herself. She could handle this. She
was armed. Whatever happened, she could always run away and heal. She hoped.
She breathed in the smells of dirt and grass in the dark. Dragged her cold feet
on through the night fields until the creeping blush of dawn.

As the sun crept
up in the cool clear sky, Tabitha caught sight of the next town in the
distance. Exhausted, she stopped for a little while and leant on a wooden
fence. Felt the smooth bite of the wood grain against her wrists, sliding her
skin over the timber with a whispering swish. She just wanted to feel something
again, with no sensation left in her hands. Worth the splinter, just to feel
it. She searched the sky for a sudden rumbling sound. A jet tore overhead.
Tabitha’s heart soared when she heard the distant echoing blast of a bomb.
Bombs could only be a good thing now, surely. It meant that people were
fighting back. The firm boot of national defence. Order being restored. She
watched a rising flower of fiery black smoke in the distance, blooming over the
town where she wanted to be. There must have been soldiers nearby; maybe in the
town itself. Or survivors, fighting back. She could help them. Another jet
ripped past overhead. It was grey, a strange shape, with a very different
sound. Wait… not a jet. Something else. Something alien
.
It belched a
pillar of white light and chased the fighter jet through the sky.

‘What the hell?’
Tabitha mumbled, staring up at it in the distant dawn. It was
flapping.
What
was it, a bird? A lizard? Whatever it was, it was huge and it was brutal. She
watched the dark creature throw its wings out wide and catch the jet in the
air. Tabitha prayed for the pilot to eject. Prayed to see their tiny shape
escaping the carnage. But nothing. The creature ripped the plane to pieces and
reduced it to a falling, flaming wreck. The spinning jet disappeared behind the
buildings in the distance. Exploded in town with a deep echoing boom. The
creature circled again. Tabitha gasped and ducked down in the tall grass,
watching the sky until it flew away. She could only watch from the fields as
the smoke rose up from the town, snaking black into the pale sky. The wind
tugged at her hair as she looked out over the sprawl of buildings. She had to
know what was happening in there. She had to get to the crashed jet.

 

10

 

Tabitha stalked into town with her rifle
ready, watching for movement in the shattered buildings. It was the same here
too; a ghost world. A thin dead covering of brick dust coated the cars she
passed by. Torn-open office blocks bled flurries of paper in the summer breeze.
It was hot and dry here; an urban desert. There was only the sullen creak of
her leather boots as she walked the streets, cradling her rifle. Was this how
it felt to be a soldier? Even they moved as a team though. She was on her own.

There’d been
some real fighting here in the town centre. Bullet holes peppered the
buildings. The shop windows that still stood were shattered through, clouded
white with a thousand webbed cracks. Useless barricades blocked the side
streets; walls of tables and chairs with their legs poking skywards. Tabitha
jumped at sudden birdsong; a blackbird that twittered loudly as it flew
overhead. She was glad of the sound though, even despite her pounding heart.
Nothing was worse than the graveyard silence here. Some of the shops were
burnt-out shells; walls blackened from long-dead fires. She’d imagined some
kind of resistance fighting back; there was nothing here. No skins, no spidery
shapes; no fighting. No sign of life. Passing a ruined bank building, she
stooped to pick up one of the leaflets that had blown out of the broken door
onto the street.

‘Protect your
world,’ Tabitha mumbled, reading the header aloud. Home insurance. A couple grinned
at one another on the cover. There wasn’t anything about alien invasion cover
inside the pages. Tabitha dropped the leaflet on the kerb and walked off up the
dead high street.

 

Pigeons had gathered in the empty town
square, pecking and strutting, oblivious to the urban ruins around them.
Tabitha hoisted herself up onto the wall that surrounded the square, and looked
around her in the hazy morning heat. There was a little toy skeleton on the
ground nearby; bright green plastic grinning at her from the grave.

‘Anyone here?’
she muttered to herself, taking a sip of water from a plastic bottle. A bee
swam by through the warm air. Tabitha sighed and shrugged out of her hoodie.
She pulled the stale bread from the carrier bag, stared at it, and put it back.
She couldn’t face another bite after how sick it’d made her feel yesterday. She
looked around, shrugged, sighed. A fly danced by in the sticky golden sunlight.

 

Up on the flat roof of a hotel building
she could see for miles. Two columns of smoke twisted up black in the distance;
they must have been the crashed jet and the bomb it had dropped. The wind
whipped white rubbish down the road below. The town laid out beneath her was a
ruin of browns and greys, a square-mile demolition site. There were cars everywhere,
parked up hurriedly on kerbs or abandoned on the main roads. Lined up in dead
traffic like one huge dealership. She couldn’t get over how quiet the world
was. There were no voices, no sirens; no
perma
-hiss
of road noise. She’d never expected a peace like this, as lonely and brutal as
it was. Far in the distance lay the dull green hills, and not a cloud in the
sky. Somewhere miles behind, she thought about Sam and Jane sealing themselves
back into their cellar. Scared. Tabitha felt her own gnawing fear too, but at
least it hadn’t consumed her. Surely it was better to be out in the world,
looking for other survivors. Or was it? Was this the wrong thing to do? Should
she be holed up somewhere safe, waiting for everything to get fixed? It didn’t
look like there was anyone left to fix anything. There certainly wasn’t any
sign of the military here, like she’d expected. The empty new world sprawled
out below, on and on into a hazy horizon. Despite her fear and her loneliness
though, she felt alright up here in the sunlight. The more she stayed with the
strange easy feeling, vague and slippery as it was, the better she felt. It
grew in her like the seed of something, then it flooded through her. She felt
strong. Her body buzzed and her brain tingled; it was the most beautiful
feeling. Holding her metal palm to her chest, there wasn’t any semblance of a
heartbeat. Just a muted vibration, humming and miniscule. She could feel her
silver blood inside her; a soaring feeling that coursed current through her
body. She felt a tingle across her scalp, down her neck. The energy inside her
gave her that feeling again, like when she’d been in the woods. Like everything
was connected in one big electric web, and the sun was shining down with an
energy that felt almost sacred. She caught herself then, gazing in a reverie.
She needed a plan.

 

It was morbid curiosity that drew her on
toward the smoking crash site. She followed the trail of smoke twisting up into
the sky, heading out towards a housing estate. The summer heat pressed close as
she walked. The dry sticky breeze did nothing to cool her down. She felt her
t-shirt clinging to her back, damp with sweat. Her feet were hot and sore,
laced up in her boots like creaking leather ovens. She clamped a hand to her
mouth when she rounded the next corner. Already she could feel the heat of the
blaze. Crackling flames. There in front of her was the dead jet, lying mauled
and mangled by gigantic claws. Broken and burning. The wreckage covered the
road; the jet’s body had ploughed into the tarmac and smashed through a shop.

‘Jesus,’ Tabitha
mumbled, stopping in her tracks. She hadn’t seen it at first. There in the
wreckage was a spider, sat right in the blaze. Silver skin reflecting the
flames; a lurking vision of death. Its mouth parts twitched and shuffled,
dripping the pilot’s red blood. It shifted around to face her. Tabitha fumbled
with the hunting knife on her belt. She felt her stomach lurch with dread,
ready for the fight. But the spider didn’t move. As she stood staring at it,
she realised how fat it looked.

‘You’re full,’
she said, stepping closer. ‘You can’t even move, can you? You vile, creeping
little shit.’ Tabitha stepped closer, watching it. The spider backed away a
step, reluctant to fight. It was all Tabitha needed. She pulled the knife from
her belt and ran at it. The spider was a sudden wall of raised legs; jutting
silver swords held up against her. Tabitha wrenched away a stabbing leg and
stomped the spider in the head, and drove the knife in deep. She watched the
dots of light along its body flicker and fade out, and the thing slumped
forward against her. Tabitha let its curled-up body fall from the jet and crash
down on the road, abdomen swollen with its meal. She glanced at the drained
body in the jet’s cockpit, and wished she hadn’t. Retching, she jumped back
down from the jet and bent over on the road, holding her knees while she waited
for the sick feeling to pass. She wiped the silver blood from her knife against
her filthy jeans, and slipped it back into the sheath. She had to get away from
here. At least she’d learned a couple of things about the spiders, she told
herself. Fire wouldn’t kill them, but their own greed could certainly help.

Tabitha spent
the afternoon working her way back through the town centre, searching buildings
for survivors or anything useful. It was a long way to the next town over, and
it looked like she really was on her own. All she could do was stay alive and
keep moving, and hope that somewhere out there was some shred of civilisation.
She moved cautiously, staying close to the buildings in the shade. She passed
by a popped football in the street, browned and sad with a deflated dent.
Further down the road she glanced at a blood-stained novel left on a bench,
crinkled and rain-warped and fluttering open in the breeze.

Every other home
and office she explored held their own little stockpiles of food. Cupboards
stacked high with tins and jars. Everything that people had managed to loot,
steal and panic-buy before the end of the world, Tabitha told herself. As if
having enough food was going to see them through what was coming. She couldn’t
believe how different the world looked now, after only a few days without
humanity to keep it tidy. Everywhere she looked, dirt and rubbish and
wilderness were creeping in like mould.

A leisure centre
had been left wide open, abandoned. Edging her way inside, the dark corridor
was empty. The drinks machines had been prised open and looted; Tabitha spotted
a dented can of cola left over beside the wall. It hissed and fizzed when she
cracked the ring pull open, and she clamped her mouth over the sugary froth
before it escaped. Shaking the sticky drips off her grey fingers, Tabitha
headed back outside and looked around at the empty world. She took another
slurp of her can, guzzling until she felt the bubbles sting her throat. Sighing
with satisfaction at the sugar rush.

 

When she reached a dingy old block of
flats, Tabitha felt torn. It looked like the perfect place for those spiders to
nest. It also looked like a good place to hole up and stay safe… maybe there
were people up there. Maybe they needed her help. She had to redeem herself,
after what had happened to Dev in the pub.

‘I could have
saved him,’ she told herself sadly, heading toward the open door of the tower
block. If she hadn’t been drunk, if she’d been paying attention… it had been
such a split-second thing though. It was all over in a moment. Tabitha wiped
her tears on her arm as she climbed the staircase, boots clomping quietly on
the old dull floor tiles.

She didn’t
explore any floors in the block that had skins in the corridor. There had only
been two floors so far that hadn’t. She emerged from the first safe-looking
flat with a rucksack, and put a stray digestive biscuit she’d found into her
hoodie pocket. There’d been practically nothing else in the place but old
furniture and a stale smoky smell. The next flat she explored had been a good
haul though. She emerged again with tins of beans weighing down her rucksack,
and crisps and chocolate too. Rummaging in her crinkling carrier bag, she moved
the bread and bottles of water into the backpack and headed on up to the top
floor.

There wasn’t
much of a lived-in quality to the last flat either; just a dead TV, strewn
clothes, and a smell like rotten vegetables. A clear lunchbox on the table was
filled with fluffy blue-white mould, thriving in the sunlight like alien candy
floss. Tabitha gagged and couldn’t look at it. She headed into the kitchen.

‘Jackpot,’ she
muttered, opening the kitchen cupboards. She opened a jar of black olives and
plucked at the top one with her new fingers, wrestling it slippery from the
neck of the jar. There was no sign that anyone had been in the flat lately; only
the clutter of lives left behind. And the most horrible little old vase she’d
ever seen.

‘What the hell
is that?’ she mumbled, taking the vase off the shelf. It was warped and
turd-brown; a seventies mistake. Her metal grip sent a hairline crack through
it. Wary, Tabitha put it back down before she managed to break it. She looked
out over the town from the grimy window, and popped the wrestled olive into her
mouth. It was a sharp salty shock on her tongue, welcome and strange. And
already it felt like too much in her stomach when she swallowed. Where was her
appetite? There was so much food here, all stacked up waiting to be eaten, and
she didn’t want any of it. She could barely manage a second olive from the jar.
Searching through the kitchen drawers, she plundered some plasters and a pair
of scissors. A couple of clean towels to tear up for bandages, just in case.
And a bright rattling box of painkillers. Definitely.

A few minutes
later Tabitha sat on the floor with a bucket, stomach cramping, throwing up her
two olives. Maybe she was in some kind of extended shock, she told herself.
She’d just have to keep trying. She had to eat something soon though; she’d try
again later. At least the bottle of spring water tasted good. Really good,
actually. She checked the brand on the bottle. Had they changed the source or
something? It was smoother than she remembered. Strangely satisfying.

 

Packing crackers, biscuits and the jar
of olives into her stolen rucksack, Tabitha looked around the flat and thought
twice. She knew she couldn’t stay here. While at first it seemed safe, high up
here away from the world, she’d be trapped. If the spiders came looking for
her, there was no way out except down all those steps. Staying here wasn’t an
option. She bagged a packet of peanuts from the cupboard; a good high-energy
food. That’s what she needed. With one last look around, she opened the door
onto the dark hallway and left.

Tabitha headed
back down endless flights of stairs and out onto the street again. She caught a
smell on the summer breeze, strong and sour. There was a low hum behind her.
Wait,
not a hum
, she told herself.
Growling.
Tabitha took one look at the
pack of dogs behind her and ran for her life, sprinting past a burned-out car
in the precinct. They were feral, and they were fast. She could hear the high
ringing of nametags on their collars as they ran. These were pets once. Now
they were hunting her, growling and barking as if she were prey on a concrete
plain. One snapped at her hand but found only metal skin there; Tabitha felt
nothing from the bite. She punched the dog hard on the snout, and watched it
trail off from the hunt with a yelp. The rest were gaining though;
alsatians
and
dobermans
with a
wild look in their eyes. Spaniels and whippets trailed behind; less aggressive
but too hungry not to join the chase. Tabitha reached into her bag for food to
distract them, but a pit bull ripped the rucksack from her grasp. The dogs tore
into the bag like a body and fought over the food that spilled over the ground.
They’d stopped chasing her. Tabitha didn’t look back, and didn’t stop running.
Then she heard the sound that she’d been hoping against, as the dogs’ claws
scratched and clattered after her again across the precinct. She pulled the
rifle from her shoulder. Crouched, aimed, squeezed the trigger. Nothing
happened.
Safety’s on
. She fumbled desperately at the safety switch and
fired, and a
doberman
dropped dead. It didn’t stop
the others though. They were too close for her to reload the rifle bolt. She
jumped to her feet, swung the gun. Cracked the wooden stock against the
alsatian’s
snarling head. But the pack was on her. She
yelled as jaws bit into her thigh; she pulled the carving knife from her belt
and buried it in the dog’s neck. It yelped and ran with the knife stuck in, and
Tabitha pulled her hunting knife instead. Stabbed another. Instinct left no
room for morality inside her. All she saw were wild eyes. All she felt were
snapping jaws, ripping into her skin. Wrestling against them she pulled the hunting
knife from the yelping dog and stabbed a third, while their jaws yanked her
body this way and that. Adrenaline pumped so hard that there wasn’t a thought
in her head. There was only kill or be killed; a violent tangle of stabs and
bites and barks and screams in the empty precinct. When her thoughts and her
breath came back to her, all she knew was that they’d left her alone. There
were dead dogs around her, sprawled in their blood. The ones that survived her
were skulking away, limping and dotting blood across the precinct. Gasping,
bleeding, Tabitha watched them go. She still held the bloody knife out in front
of her as a warning to them, shining garnet-red in the sunlight. She looked
down at her arms and the punctured jaw marks in her skin, streaming silver.
Jeans and t-shirt ripped to shreds. She stamped her terror down inside. Her
breath was ragged. Her legs felt so weak she could barely stand. She fell down
to the ground in a puddle of silver blood, still holding the knife out at the
distant dogs. Her stark yellow-green eyes stared at them still, watching the
pack limp away across the precinct and slump down panting around the dumpsters.
The bag of food was torn open in the distance, its contents massacred. They
could have it. Tabitha hunched, still staring at the dogs, and felt her sight
fading to black.

BOOK: Tabitha
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