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Authors: Andrew Hall

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Tabitha (42 page)

BOOK: Tabitha
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32

 

Tabitha woke up with a gasp, and looked
up at the bright blue sky. She inhaled life; honey-sweet air to fill her lungs.
She was alive. Her body ached, stiff and cold and pale. Surrounded by dead
spiders from the fight. It all came back to her. Gripping her neck in sudden terror,
the gory crater in her throat had healed up. She was drowning in blood though.
She choked and coughed it up like bright mercury. She was lying on wet grass,
thrown down outside at the foot of the castle walls. A sudden burning thought
filled her head; Chris. Revenge. One by one she remembered her losses too,
breaking her heart all over again. Liv and Will had suddenly been ripped out of
her life. Jim too. Emma and Jen, and Laika… but Mum’s memory stung the most.
All she felt was a sick black numbness; a venomous disbelief. The sound of a
helicopter filled her ears then; a deep chopping drone. She watched the sky.
The helicopter grew louder, larger, until it was right overhead. Lying there
with useless muscles, Tabitha turned her head and watched the helicopter set
down on the field beside the hill. The world faded to black. When she came
round again there were blurred figures walking by. She heard a conversation as
the men passed her, although their voices were muffled like they were
underwater. She tried to move but felt something banging in her head.
Everything faded to black again.

 

Chris headed up onto the top of the
keep, and saw the helicopter’s rotor blades slowing down where it had landed
beside the hill.

‘Who is it?’
said Jackie, putting her head up through the trapdoor.

‘Army,’ he
replied. He watched the figures who’d emerged from the helicopter, climbing the
last few steps and banging on the barred iron gate in the wall. Armed to the
teeth.

 

‘Tea?’ said
Sylvia, as the five men entered the keep.

‘No,’ replied
the one in command, looking around at the living room. He was tall,
black-haired, with a fierce cutting look like a living Roman statue.

‘We’re here
because three weeks ago, we lost contact with a patrol in the hills nearby,’ he
said. ‘And because six days ago, a fighter pilot followed an airborne creature
to this location. And destroyed it.’

‘You mean that
dragon thing?’ said Tony.

‘Indeed,’ the
man replied. ‘As the pilot flew overhead he discovered a large concentration of
enemy spiders, massing to attack this castle. When he returned to us he claimed
that he’d engaged the massing horde and neutralised them, and then engaged the
flying creature. We’re here because we want to know what attracted all this
attention in the first place.’

‘Because we beat
the spiders the first time,’ Chris replied. ‘They attacked again.’

‘Fair enough,’
the man replied. ‘They don’t like to be beaten, we know that much already.’

‘Major, they’ve got
assault rifles,’ said one of the soldiers, pointing at the gun propped up in
the corner.

‘We took them
from the patrol,’ said Chris. ‘We’re putting them to good use.’

‘Those are army
property,’ the major replied. ‘You two, collect the rifles. Make sure they’re
all accounted for.’ Two of the soldiers behind him came forward, and began
turning the place over for the guns.

‘You can’t take
them,’ said Tony. ‘We need them. To stay alive.’


Army
property
,’ the major repeated, slowly. ‘Private,’ he said, glancing at
another soldier.

‘Kill this man
if he speaks again.’ The soldier aimed his rifle at Tony, and motioned to him
to step back. Tony edged away towards the corner of the room, with Jackie
holding onto his arm in terror.

‘There’s a woman
outside the walls, barely conscious,’ the major observed. ‘Why?’

‘She’s dead,’
Chris corrected.

‘She was
coughing,’ said the major. Chris stared at him, speechless.

‘We shot her
dead,’ Sylvia insisted. ‘She was cannibalising one of our own.’

‘When was this?’
said the major.

‘Five days ago,’
Sylvia replied. ‘Surely she would have died from dehydration by now, if nothing
else.’

‘Well, I’ve seen
plenty of corpses in my time,’ said the major. ‘I assure you, she’s alive.’

‘She’s not
natural,’ Chris muttered, horrified at the news.

‘Really?’ said
Blake, taking a sudden interest. ‘How so?’

 

A bee came close by; a sharp sudden buzz
in Tabitha’s ear. Startled, she gasped and woke up. She blinked at the blades
of grass in front of her eyes, blurred and gigantic. She pushed herself up off
the ground, and staggered against the castle wall and the clattering spider
corpses around her. There was the helicopter, down on the field below. An army
helicopter. And suddenly her old paranoia came back, like a demon from the
deep. If the army was here, they’d want her. Just like Jane and Sam had wanted
her in her hometown, down there in their lab.
Nanotechnology.
That’s
what they’d said when her blood was under the microscope. They’d wanted to cut
her open, and use what she had. They’d taken a lot of interest in what her body
could do; the army would be the same once they found out about her. She looked
around her and saw no one. She had to get away. Her revenge could wait;
survival came first. She staggered up again from the castle wall, and ran. She
ran as fast as her weak wobbling legs would carry her. She ran down the steps,
down the grassy hill, onto the field and away from the helicopter. Her muscles
burned and her heart hammered. She had to get away. That was the only thing she
could think of. She’d head into town and then disappear into the countryside,
before anyone came looking for her.

‘She runs well
for a dead woman,’ said the major, watching Tabitha from the castle wall down
the scope of a sniper rifle. The woman was close to the park gates; hard to
miss with that tangled shock of red hair. Within seconds, she’d be out of sight
and into the warren of streets beyond.

‘Has she gone?’
said Jackie, squinting into the distance.

‘Almost,’ the
major replied, smiling. He tightened his finger on the trigger, and the rifle
cracked and echoed across town. The force of the shot hit Tabitha like a
sledgehammer in the back. She fell down on a sudden splat of her own silver
blood, painted there on the path in front of her. Whatever was coursing through
her body suddenly was too strong to deal with. The park gates swam before her.
Face-down she clawed at the gravel and banged her forehead on the path,
desperately trying to come round and stand up. But fighting only made it worse.
She may as well have been underwater, gasping harder and harder for air.

‘Evidently a
bullet won’t be enough to kill her,’ Sylvia told the major. ‘Take it from us.’

‘I don’t want to
kill her,’ he replied, leading his men down the steps towards the castle gate.
Chris and the others followed behind. ‘It’s a sedative round,’ the major told
them. ‘We use them on the spiders, when we need specimens to study.’

‘You’re taking
her away then?’ said Chris. ‘To study?’

‘She could be
extremely valuable to us, if what you’ve said is true,’ the major replied,
turning to Chris. ‘And I’ll assume that you’re telling me the truth, because
you’ve nothing to gain by lying about it. And
everything
to lose by
lying to
me
.’ Smiling, the major turned to his men. ‘So, let’s go and
meet this miracle woman,’ he told them, leading them on through the gate and
down the hill. ‘Healing from fatal gunshots, lasting five days without water,
feeds on
spiders
… some very useful talents to have. We’ll need to open
her up. See what makes her
tick.
’ Chris stared at him, looking uneasy at
the thought.

‘Do you think
I’m inhuman?’ the major asked him.

‘She’s the
inhuman one,’ Chris replied, clearing his throat. ‘As long she’s gone from
here, I don’t care.’

 

The soldiers carried Tabitha’s
unconscious body back across the field, with Chris and the others watching them
carefully. They wandered closer to the helicopter as the soldiers dragged
Tabitha towards it, and hoisted her inside. The major turned back to Chris and
the others, looking them over as he approached.

‘Are you taking
us somewhere safe?’ said Chris, coming forward. ‘A refugee camp?’

‘No,’ the major
chuckled, amused at the question. ‘There’s nowhere like that to take you. I
just wanted one last look at your shitty little existence here before I leave.
God, I wish I had a camera.’

‘We’ll die! You
need to take us with you!’ Tony yelled, squaring up to him. The major took a
pistol from his belt and shot Tony in the head. Jackie screamed and dropped
down beside him, holding on to his fallen body.

‘You’re vermin,’
the major told them. ‘And I don’t suffer vermin gladly. You’re all the same.
Scraping around in the ashes, waiting to starve. Now the woman you left to die
here is an interesting specimen. You lot, on the other hand, have nothing to
offer us but your hunger and disease. I wish you all a good quick death.’ With
that he climbed back into the helicopter, followed by the soldiers. Chris,
Jackie and Sylvia could only watch in horror as the helicopter lifted away.
Chris ran towards it, jumping up desperately to try to grab hold of it. It rose
too fast though. The rotors whipped a flurry of sandy soil into their eyes as
they reached up for it; their last hope. The noise drowned out their desperate
screams and shouts, as they watched the helicopter tilt forward and climb off
into the sky.

 

33

 

Tabitha came around in a black room. The
only sounds were her own panicked breaths and a squeaking plastic rustle, as
she struggled against solid restraints that held her limbs and head tight to the
chair. The smell in here was one of cleaning fluid, cloying and false-fragrant
like old hospital wards. There was the feel of a hospital gown on her too; a
clammy plastic smoothness on her skin, crinkling softly as she tried to move
around. A fluorescent ceiling light flickered then, and came on with a quiet
ping
.
Squinting at the brilliant white walls, Tabitha’s blinking eyes settled on the
room. An interrogation room. She panicked, struggling against her sudden
situation. Her restraints were metal cuffs in the chair, inches thick around
her wrists and ankles. Solid and unyielding. A steel table and chair stood
several feet in front of her. A red light came on over the door then, caged in
little white bars caked with age-old coats of paint. An old waiting-room buzzer
blared an electrical belch, and the heavy old door opened. A tall man strode in
with an arrogant smile and perfect posture, and took a seat at the table. He
was middle-aged, sharply dressed. Black hair. Thin creased face. Consummate
military man.

‘Major John
Blake,’ he said, edging his chair closer to the table. He rested his hands down
gently on the table top. ‘I’m the one who shot you,’ he said. He was
well-spoken, with a voice thick as molasses that filled the bare room. ‘It’s a
pleasure to finally meet you,’ he said. Tabitha watched him fearfully, still
struggling against her restraints. Blake just sat and smiled. His neat
back-and-sides picked out his sharp gaunt features. The buzzer went again, and
the door opened. An aide strode in with a cup and saucer and a squat, steel,
cafeteria coffee pot. Blake smiled at Tabitha as if they’d invited her over for
tea. He waited patiently while his aide, who didn’t dare look at her, poured
steaming coffee into his cup and left the room.

‘It’s a shame to
detain you like this,’ Blake mused once they were alone, blowing at the small
cup of coffee that he held pinched between finger and thumb. ‘But given your
monstrous affliction, I saw no other choice.’ He smiled, and sipped his coffee.
Tabitha said nothing; only glared and pulled at her restraints. She slammed the
back of her head against the chair rest, so hard that she hurt herself. Blake
looked amused.

‘So much anger,’
he said with a smirk, placing his cup down in the saucer with a gentle clink.
He folded his fingers together on the table. Big clean fingernails, filed to
perfection. ‘Or should I say, so much anger
wasted
. From one killer to
another, my advice is this: pour every ounce of your anger into effective
actions.’ He sipped his coffee, and took on a philosophical look. ‘Anger is a
precious resource, and it comes in such short bursts,’ he said. ‘Don’t waste it
on superficial displays, or… ineffective expressions. Channel every drop of
anger into effective deeds.’

‘You talk too
much,’ said Tabitha, pale-faced, staring into his dark eyes.

‘And you don’t
talk much at all,’ he replied brightly, putting his cup down with a clink.
‘It’s not like a captive to say so little.’ Tabitha ignored him and simply
stared into his eyes, trying to will whatever alien strength she’d been cursed
with to snap her restraints. But they didn’t even rattle.

‘I doubt that
you’ll break those,’ said Blake, nodding at her cuffs. He sipped his coffee.
‘I’m aware that it’s uncomfortable and undignified, and for that much I
apologise,’ he said. ‘But you’re just too useful to us to let you escape. We’d
like your abilities, you see. To us, you’re a weapon. A bioweapon.’ He coughed
politely, and webbed his fingers back together on the table top. ‘Imagine
soldiers immune to the alien venom,’ he said proudly. ‘Soldiers who could heal
in minutes, or turn their skin into armour. These kind of abilities could turn
the tide in this war. And God knows, we’re in dire need of that. So, if there’s
anything you can tell us now that’ll help us, it would be much appreciated.
We’d like to know how you tick, Tabitha.’

‘Why don’t you
come a little closer and find out?’ she replied, through gritted teeth. Blake
barked a laugh into the room, sudden and arrogant. Tabitha’s body trembled with
anger. Her muscles ached and flexed beneath her skin with the constant effort
against her restraints.

‘Alright,’ he
replied happily, as if he’d been invited to join a game. He stood up and
stepped towards her slowly, as if he were approaching an exhibit. ‘I could
never refuse the invitation of a beautiful woman.’ He leant in close to her
face, breathing his sour coffee breath on her cheek. ‘Even an alien one,
apparently.’ He smelled like aftershave and alcohol; cigarette smoke and boot
polish.

‘I’m human,’ she
spat back. The head restraint pinned her. She could only give his face a
sidelong stare where it loomed at her shoulder.

‘You don’t
believe that,’ he replied playfully, looking down at her hands. ‘And neither
does anyone else.’ His fingers moved as if he were about to touch her breast;
he stopped himself. ‘I mean, you have those
hands
,’ he said. You drink
the blood of an
alien species
to survive. Even sitting still, you look
like a wild animal. You’re a mutation
.
A monster.’ He looked deep into
her eyes, as if he were about to confide in her. ‘An
abomination.
’ His
words bit her, more than she thought they could. After everything she’d been
through, after all she’d lost, it was still the weight of words that cut
deepest. They always had, ever since she was small.

‘And you’re
going to cut me up,’ she said venomously. ‘So what does that make you?’

‘Oh, I’m not the
one doing the cutting,’ Blake said with a smile, straightening up to look down
at her. ‘We have our own Doctor Frankenstein, here on the base; I’m just the
one who brings him the bodies.’

‘You mean there
are more people like me?’ she said furiously.

‘Not like you,’
he replied. ‘Just… people. Failed experiments. We’ve put them down now anyway.’
He said it as if it were a tedious formality, and turned away from her. ‘It’s
nothing personal,’ he said over his shoulder, walking back to the table.
‘Humanity’s already lost this war,’ he said. ‘To survive this world, we need to
become inhuman. And you’re going to show us how.’ He scratched his forehead, searching
for the words. ‘Don’t think of us as monsters,’ he reassured her. ‘We’re doing
this for the human race, not for me or you. Believe me, I’d have my own mother
cut open if it would save the planet. And anyway, I’m told that you died of a
gunshot to the throat and then just… came back to life. What’s a few scalpels
and needles to someone like you?’ Tabitha said nothing; she only glared and
struggled against the chair with a fresh fury.

‘It’s such a
shame that you’re not more well-built,’ said Blake, with disappointment in his
voice. ‘How much more we could have learned from a stronger specimen.’ He
sipped his coffee. ‘The one person we find with the potential to help us win
this war, and it had to be a bloody w –

Blake hesitated
and stopped himself before he said it.

‘What? A woman?’
said Tabitha. ‘Is that what you were going to say?’ Blake said nothing.

‘So there’s
people listening to us talk?’ she said. Blake’s angry silence was as good as a
yes. ‘I don’t think you’re the one wearing the trousers around here,’ Tabitha
chuckled. ‘Your boss is a woman, and you hate it.’ He sipped his coffee in
silence. ‘So here you are, the big bad major, afraid to share a room with a
weak little woman unless I’m bolted to a chair,’ she said. Blake didn’t say
anything, or turn to face her. He merely paused for a second, and sipped his
coffee. ‘Is
that
how the big bad Major got his stripes?’ she continued.
‘Getting his men to tie people down, so he could take the piss without getting
hurt? You’ll even get
them
to cut me up and pull me apart too. I think
the big bad major’s afraid to get his hands dirty.’

‘Are you
implying that I’m a coward?’ he said quietly, between sips of his coffee.
Images flashed in his mind, stark and fleeting. All the horror he’d seen. He
turned to her, and his expression changed. His look took on a sudden ferocity,
utterly detached.

‘I’m not
implying anything,’ Tabitha replied. ‘You
are
a coward.’ Blake pelted
the coffee cup at the wall by her head. He launched himself at her and gripped
her hard by the jaw. He stared into her eyes with a burning hate. Tabitha felt
like her jaw was about to crack. Blake gripped, harder, and patted the sheath
on his belt for a knife that wasn’t there. He’d had to leave it outside, on his
superior’s orders.

‘Major Blake,’
came a woman’s voice over a speaker, calm and crisp. Blake ignored it. He
shifted his grip to squeeze Tabitha’s throat and pulled back his fist, about to
lay into her face. ‘Major Blake,’ the voice repeated, insistent. Blake
hesitated, and stepped back in a rage. He up-ended the steel table against the
wall with a ringing crash, and stormed out of the door as the buzzer blared.

‘Bye darling,’
Tabitha called after him, listening to his boots clomp down the hall as the
door crept shut. ‘Come and see me again without these cuffs on. I’ll tear your
heart out.’

 

After a short wait the door buzzer
blared again. Tabitha jumped. The doctor seemed to glide into the room, stooped
and graceful like a greying vulture. For all the threat of Major Blake’s anger,
it was nothing compared with the dread she felt at the doctor’s calm
expression. He held a syringe and a glass bottle of clear fluid in a veiny
hand. His thick glasses framed eyes that looked too big. Eyes that looked over
her body, studying her strange hands. They didn’t dare meet the hate and fury
in her stare. They simply darted from her secure restraints to the soft pale
skin at the crease in her arm.

‘You’re here to
cut me open, aren’t you?’ she asked him. He didn’t respond.

‘I’m going to
get free, and I’m going to strip the skin off you,’ she told him. No reaction.
She watched him draw clear fluid from the bottle into the syringe. ‘When you
cut me up, you just make sure there’s nothing left of me,’ she told him.
‘Otherwise I’m going to come back for you when you’re sleeping, and I’m going
to skin you. We could make a night of it.’ His big wrinkly hands trembled when
he poked the needle into her vein. ‘I’ll skin you alive,’ she growled at him.
‘I’ll skin you alive! I fucking promise!’ the needle had emptied into her, and
she felt anaesthetic plunge her mind underwater. A much stronger dose. Her
brain and body had disconnected. The room was a white blur, shrinking from her
view.

 

When Tabitha woke up she saw two faces
above her, standing in fuzzy silhouette against a circle of surgical lights
overhead. She lay restrained on an operating table. Her body must have burned
off the anaesthetic… no, it wasn’t that. They just wanted her awake now, that
was all. They’d already cut her open and looked inside while she was
unconscious. She could feel the closed incision in her chest and stomach; the
searing sting of stitched-up skin as it healed. She was awake, but she couldn’t
move a thing. Not even to struggle against her restraints. Like her body had
been unplugged from her mind.

‘Are you sure
about this?’ said the woman standing over her, sounding distant and
husky-voiced. Her face drifted and blurred with the lights above her, as if in
a dream.

‘She needs to be
conscious,’ the doctor insisted. ‘The anaesthetic inhibits her abilities
slightly. We have to know what she’s really capable of.’ Tabitha was terrified.
Again she frantically tried to struggle against her restraints. But she
couldn’t even twitch a finger. She was paralysed, and yet she still had feeling
in her limbs. She felt the tight restraints around her wrists and ankles; the
cold air against her legs.

‘Just make sure
you don’t kill her,’ the woman commanded him. ‘She’s too valuable. And keep the
noise down.’

‘Trust me,’ he
replied. ‘She won’t make a peep.’ Tabitha tried to shout. She couldn’t make the
sounds. Words wouldn’t come. All she could do was watch, blink, breathe. She
screamed silently in a fevered rage, and roared words in her head that never escaped
her still lips. She urged her arms and legs to flail and strike out, but the
muscles wouldn’t respond. She lay motionless in a night terror, waiting for a
waking jolt that wouldn’t come.

‘I’ll leave you to
it,’ the woman told the doctor, looking over Tabitha on the table but refusing
to meet her eyes. As the woman walked out, the doctor brought a scalpel over
from a trolley. He lowered it carefully to press it gently against Tabitha’s
leg. Then the pain started. Tabitha felt all of it, the blinding pain of the
slice, stretching on for an eternity as her mind writhed and screamed. Her
relief was short-lived; another instrument went in. The surgery had begun. She
felt every ounce of agony, every inch of surgical steel that clicked and
jostled against raw bone. The pain was maddening, drowning out every thought.
She wanted to murder him. She’d never imagined herself taking another life
before, but now she knew what it felt like to want someone dead. An animal hate
burned in the back of her brain. One procedure followed after another, on and
on until she’d passed out and come around and passed out again. The doctor was
watching her expression as she blinked her eyes open.
I’m going to kill you.
She screamed the thought at him, over and over, trying to launch her mind
at his somehow. Desperate for him to know how much he was going to suffer when
she broke free. It was the only thought that kept her going.

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