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Authors: Andrew Hall

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

Tabitha (45 page)

BOOK: Tabitha
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‘Dragon!
Dragon!’ came a shout across the base, and suddenly the searchlight on the
tower burst into white flames. The huge dark creature swept past in the night
overhead, lit for a moment by the flaming watchtower beneath it. Tabitha was
hidden in the darkness again. She ran for the fence and started to pull at the
screws that held it to a concrete post. A rumbling growl rolled overhead in the
darkness, weird and alien. The dragon swept down over the base and spat a
pillar of white light into the complex. Soldiers screamed in agony as buildings
erupted into thundering white flames. Tabitha’s fingers wrenched and pulled at
the screws in the fence. She picked a corner of the chain-link away from the
concrete post as quickly as she could. The dragon roared and rushed over the
base again, bursting another building apart in flames the colour of moonlight.

‘Get a lock on
it!’ a man yelled, off across the square. Tabitha recognised the deep voice. It
was Blake.

‘Locked!’
replied the soldier beside him, shouldering a missile launcher. The launcher
spat its missile skywards with a rasping hiss, and clapped and boomed against
the dragon’s roaring silhouette overhead. Blake yelled. A cheer went up from
the gathering soldiers. The dragon’s body crashed down on the pitch-black
moors, framed in the eerie glow of white fire.

‘They’re coming
for the gate!’ came a distant yell from the barricade. Tabitha watched Blake
lead his men across the yard, opening fire on the night where the floodlights
caught moving shapes on the moors. Some of the soldiers fired uselessly into
the night sky, blind to a second dragon that swept overhead. Another white
fireball screamed down from the black sky, blowing another building apart. The
flash of light lit the night around them, and for a moment Tabitha saw a creeping
horde filling the moors. Already soldiers were deserting, yelling and running
for the barricade. They disappeared from the glow of the floodlights and
screamed in the darkness beyond the fence, butchered in the night.

‘Open fire!’
Blake bellowed. Something huge and black had appeared to tear down the
barricade; a monstrous shadow that roared demonic as the soldiers shot it.
Tabitha cursed and gave up on the fence, and ran for a jeep parked off to her
right. She just had to hope it was working. She saw Blake across the square,
silhouetted against the floodlight behind him. She jabbed at the switches and
buttons on the jeep’s sparse dashboard, and felt her heart leap as the engine
roared into life. Before she could reach for the handbrake though, the jeep’s
engine spluttered and died.

‘Shit, shit!’
she hissed, fumbling with the switches again. Blake had spotted her in the
glare of the floodlight and opened fire with his rifle, ignoring the spiders
that spread out into the yard behind him. Suddenly the second dragon landed
down on the roof of the headquarters with a crash, and spat a jet of fire down
over the screaming soldiers below. Tabitha pulled down the window and aimed her
pistol at Blake, shooting at him as he approached. She hit him in the shoulder
as he reloaded. He looked at her in shock while she aimed for his head. Tabitha
pulled the trigger. The pistol just clicked, empty.

‘Fuck!’ she
yelled furiously, and ducked down against Blake’s returning shots as he stormed
towards her. She flicked at the switches and the engine whirred and coughed and
rumbled to life again; the jeep’s sudden headlights blinding Blake as he
approached. Tabitha threw the jeep into gear and floored the accelerator, and
drove straight for him. Blake tried to jump aside but hit the headlight with a
bang, thrown to the ground as Tabitha ploughed through the perimeter fence.

 

Tabitha skidded the jeep onto the road
across the moors, tearing off into the night. She felt high; drunk on freedom.
Jolts and bumps shook her body in the seat. She checked her mirrors for any
sign of the alien horde, but there was nothing in the blackness around her.
Maybe they wanted the base more than a stray survivor. She clung to that hope
and felt her
heartcore
pounding as she put the base
further and further behind her. She heard a helicopter somewhere above, and it
sounded like it was getting closer. Within seconds it was flying overhead, and
a spotlight blinded her. A machine gun rattled. The shots came punching and
banging and ringing against the jeep’s bodywork. Tabitha swerved off onto the
moors, helpless, trying to escape as the shots punched through the roof. There
was a white burst of light in the sky. The helicopter erupted into flames,
spinning and droning as it ploughed into the moors behind her, lighting the
night in a flaring fireball. The second dragon’s grey shape rushed past
overhead.

Tabitha joined
the road again and slammed the accelerator down. She killed the headlights,
trying to slip away from the creature in the dark. But it had already seen her.
Its white staring eyes blinked in the night sky above, stalking her. Another
flash of white light. Tabitha jumped from the door and smacked hard into the
ground as the speeding jeep burst into flames. Looking up from the dirt, she
saw the jeep flip and tumble and come crashing down on the moors. The dragon
swept overhead with a tidal rush as she struggled to her feet. She ran. The
cold earth slapped against her soles and pounded her heels. A rock cut the ball
of her foot, and stumbled her. But she kept running. She heard scuttling behind
her, muffled in the grass and mud. The hillsides flashed white with distant
explosions, and the night sky filled with the cracks and booms of a warzone
over the military base. She didn’t look back; just kept running. There were
gunshots, far away, rattling into the night. Tabitha’s hair streamed away
behind her as she ran. Spiders tried to snap at her heels in the darkness. She
didn’t turn to fight them. The chittering racket grew until it filled the moors
behind her. The horde was chasing her. Tabitha gasped for breath and pounded
her feet into the ground, sprinting with everything she had. Twin shooting
stars glided by overhead; white eyes in the inky night. Again came the
ear-popping rush of giant wings. Every thought left her head. All she could do
was run. She ran from the scuttling tide at her back and the dark wings in the
sky. She ran from the thunder-clap bangs of artillery over the hills. The
lightning-strike bursts of white light. But beyond the clattering metal rush of
spiders, she heard other sounds too. The strange rumbling of alien wings, and
the distant scream of soldiers. And the faintest trickle of running water.
Tabitha followed her ears and veered off to the left as she ran, and the sound
of water grew louder. Clearer. There was a slope to the moor here. She felt the
ground get suddenly steeper and then slope down, and she threw herself onto her
side to slide down the damp hill. The wings rushed by only feet above her head,
and the dragon roared as she missed its snapping claws. Tabitha hurtled down
the slope on her side, feeling the rough grass scratch and burn against her
legs. Suddenly she hit a freezing rush of water. A deep river carried her now,
faster than she could ever hope to run. The chittering wall of sound behind her
grew distant, and the legion of spiders gave up the chase with a chorus of
angry screeching. Tabitha gasped for air as the river current carried her. She
glanced up at the starry night and slicked back her wet hair, breathing freedom
in blissful gulps. Swept along in the river.

Her relief was
short-lived though. Within a couple of minutes the rocky riverbed was banging
against her feet. The current tumbled her up against gravel and stones, where the
river broadened out and grew shallow. Dripping trickles of icy water, Tabitha
leapt up the crumbling turf embankment back onto the moors. She dragged herself
on and broke into a sprint. She heard the sudden beat of wings up behind her.
White fire burst out of the sky. She leapt away from the rushing blast, but
screamed at the flames that seared her feet. The creature rumbled overhead,
flying off into the night again. Tabitha forced herself to keep running. She
had to survive. Up behind her on the slope, the chattering tide of spiders
burst over the hillside after her. Muscles aching, she yelled and ran. She was
tired; they were gaining fast. A hundred yards behind her. Fifty. Thirty. Again
the white eyes swooped down out of the night sky towards her. She saw its body,
grey against the black night. She leapt up over the dragon’s snatching claws
and gripped tight to the scales on its leg. She felt herself pulled suddenly
into the air, and felt her stomach turn over like she was on a rollercoaster.
The wind rushed in her ears and chilled her wet gown. She was twisting and
turning in the air, clutching its giant kicking leg as they flew high above the
moors. The creature bellowed and the night spun around her, making her body
lurch and her stomach turn. Over the next sudden hillside a dark lake sprawled
out beneath her, sudden and vast and glistening in the faint sliver of
moonlight. The dragon shook and writhed and kicked, and she lost her grip on
its scales. Her stomach twisted. Suddenly she was falling from the sky,
flailing and gasping and screaming in mortal dread as the lake loomed large
below. A jet of white fire leapt out towards her overhead, but she was falling
too fast for it. The dragon disappeared in the night sky far above. Tabitha
sucked in her breath and held her hands out to take the impact, and the lake
slammed into her palms like a brick wall. Her wrists were a sudden stinging
agony. Everything was bubbling and black under here; a choking muffled rush of
bitter-cold water. But Tabitha was laughing when she broke the surface again,
coughing and spluttering the lake’s sour dirty taste. Treading the black water
that lapped at her ears she felt nothing, thought nothing. There was only the
soaring primal rush of cheating death.

 

Tabitha climbed ashore on the far side
of the lake, her feet slapping on wet
silty
sand.
Tufts of spindly grass poked through the fine sand where she fell to her hands
and knees. The beach by the lake was made of coarser grains, big and sharp
against her skin where she crawled almost face-down in the dirt. The waves
sloshed and fizzed on the lake shore behind her. The dim moonlight picked out
shapes on the sand; twigs and rotten leaves strewn along the tide mark. Drowned
feathers and shreds of plastic bag, scattered around her fingers in the
washed-up froth. She staggered to her aching feet and looked up at the night
sky, gasping for breath. Up over the lake the dragon roared in defeat, and gave
up its search of the water. Tabitha saw no sign of the spiders here; the moors
were far behind. The dark world tumbled around her then as she collapsed
breathless onto the dirty sand. She’d escaped. She stared up at the sky, and
the stars that stretched on forever. She’d never seen them so bright before. A
million pinprick suns painted on the black night. They shone cold, scattered,
oblivious.

Beyond the lake
shore was a forest, invisible in the deep dark but rustling in the wind.
Tabitha heard clattering legs in the distance, getting closer. Staggering to
her feet with a weary grunt, she ran in amongst the trees. Her thin flimsy
hospital gown clung to her body, ice-cold in the wind as she ran. She had to
get away from the sound of the clattering legs. Maybe she’d imagined it; maybe
not. She had to run though. She had to get far away.

Every other
footstep was a jagged punishment; a jutting rock or a hard root against her
bare feet. But everything in here smelled like dirt and trees, and it had never
smelled so good. A fresh earthy scent all around her that felt like coming
home. A world away from the hospital smell of the military base. There were no
glaring fluorescent lights here, exposing everything she’d become to anyone who
wanted to stare. There were no restraints to pin her down. No drugged-up daze
to tangle her mind in amnesiac knots. Best of all, there were no people here.
Only mortal fear. She could handle mortal fear; running for her life. At least
now she’d die free. Imprisonment was the real terror; she knew that now. Facing
death without a chance to fight back. But no more. She’d never be caught again;
she refused.

Tabitha tore on
through the pitch black woods. Tripping and cutting and bruising, and banging
into trees she couldn’t see. A fierce wind picked up, shredding the clouds away
from the murky moon’s anaemic glow. Tabitha forced herself to keep moving. They
could be right behind her in the dark, searching for her. So she ran. Every
time she slipped down, or tripped, or hit a root and went flying into a tree
trunk, she picked herself up. Wiped the cold grainy mud from her stinging cuts,
and carried on. She had to keep running. They were all dead and gone now,
everyone she’d loved. But she wasn’t. Not yet. Something primal had taken over,
there in the back of her mind. A dark snarling hunger for revenge and survival.
It kept her legs running, and her arms pushing past the branches. It kept her
from giving up.

 

34

 

Tabitha was miles away by dawn. She
looked down the hillside at the distant lake, spread out before her in the pink
growing light. It looked no bigger than a puddle from where she stood,
stretching her legs on a sandy footpath winding up a vast hill. She could see
where she’d come from too, far away on the distant moors, where smoke rose in
lazy black towers from the ruins of the military base. Turning her back on it,
Tabitha looked down the other side of the hill on a landscape she didn’t
recognise. It could’ve been anywhere; all rolling green fields and winding
country roads. Off on the horizon she could make out the tower blocks of a
distant city in the haze.

‘Where do I go?’
she mumbled to herself. She felt a concrete lump of grief rising in her throat;
swallowed it down. Much too big to handle now. She wiped the tears from her
eyes, gulped the feeling down again, and tried to focus on where to go next.
She had all the country to choose from, and all of it dangerous. She stood and
stewed in indecision, thinking everything through as the sun rose in the sky.
When she’d taken to the roads with Laika, she’d thought she could hide away
from the spiders in the countryside. But the opposite was true. She thought
about last night too, when she’d been running for her life. Except for the
river, there’d been nothing between her and them. The spiders were too fast in
open country; they’d almost caught her. At least in a town or a city there was
a warren of windows and doors to hide behind. An obstacle course she could use
to get away from them, and survive another day in the grey ruins. But that was
no way to live, she told herself. She’d have to think bigger than simply
running and hiding. Right now though all she could think about were her sore
filthy feet, and the endless freezing bite of the wind through her wet gown.
Dew clung to the grass where she sat for a moment, winking like beads of glass
in the gold morning light. They slid away to nothing at the touch of her
finger; a momentary beauty, lost forever.

Tabitha hobbled
down the far side of the hill on cold battered feet, and felt the bruised bones
aching beneath her bare filthy soles.

‘…Too much to
ask to grow some bloody metal skin on my feet,’ she grumbled, limping and
staggering down the path as the birds sang in the pines.

 

There was some old fallen stonework
further down the hill, hidden between the trees like a tumble-down garden.
Tabitha came to a peaceful pond in the heart of it, once fed by an ornate
waterfall that had long since mudded up. Her presence startled a pair of ducks
that stood by the edge of the pond, whispering soft grumpy quacks as they
sploshed down into the brown water and glided away. Tabitha stared at the
water; a deathly mirror reflecting a zombie version of the sky. Pondweed lurked
just under the rippling surface there; rot-green feathery combs reaching up
from the murk. Birds chattered and sang in the trees all around her, filling
the silent murdered world with chaotic melody. She could never get used to the
new quietness of the world. There were still the charred ruins of a fire in the
dirt nearby; a nest of scaly charcoal logs that still smelled smoky-sweet when
she kicked at them. There was a dusting of white ash on the ground, and
scorched grass around it. She thought about festivals and campfires; barbecues
and drunk pictures with old friends. She thought about her gran’s old fireplace
too, a memory from her childhood. She’d lay her empty crisp packet down onto
the red coals, and watch it shrink down into a bubbling plastic blob. Back in a
different life. A snapping twig jolted her from her thoughts. It was just a
squirrel, scurrying up a tree nearby. Tabitha turned back to the pond. She
could have lain down by the ashes of the fire there, and gone to sleep. At
least just to get off her sore feet for a while. But it wasn’t safe to rest
here. Too high up, too exposed, too everything. She turned away from the dead
fire, and hobbled on down the stony path onto a stretch of grass. Her feet were
grateful for the softness. She headed into the trees where they grew thick and
ducked under a low branch, slowing her steps down the slope and jumping down over
a stone wall at the bottom. She froze at a sudden rustle in the bushes, but it
was too gentle to be a spider. For one forgetful moment she thought it might be
Laika, until her heart broke all over again at the thought. Just a blackbird.

She cut across another
path, and edged her way down a
soily
black slope.
Past a tiny river further down the trees thinned out and the hill levelled off.
Not long after that she reached a stretch of farmland, where tangles of sheep’s
wool dotted a barbed wire fence. She took hold of the barbed wire and pulled it
away without feeling a thing, and climbed over the fence to ramble on through
the field. She even felt something close to peace, for a little while. The sun
was climbing over the distant fields, and she wasn’t being hunted. The way
things were now, it didn’t get any better than this. She tried to focus on her
good memories of the Ghosts; their victories and summer days. Not the way
they’d been torn away from her.

 

Tabitha sighed with relief at the sight
of the village. It was a tiny place, surrounded by forest and tucked away from
the world. The first building she came to was a stone church, nestled in the
middle of a jagged graveyard ringed by a crooked old iron fence. Old spiralled
handrails led up the wall to the latch door. The rounded stone steps were half
painted in white lichen; centuries-old stains. She sat down on a bench for a
little while, around the back of the church under the shade of a pine. The
birds were the only sound here; sudden chirps and chatters and high sad songs.
Tabitha closed her tired yellow eyes for a second, and felt her head dip. She
forced her eyes open again. She couldn’t sleep here. She got up to walk down
the graveyard towards the village. All the old gravestones here were coated in
a rich green dust of age, glowing in the sunlight like nature distilled. Some
of the gravestones were old. Very old. One had been crudely inscribed with the
date 1702; another, 1616. The people buried here had long since found a
peaceful sleep; a distant dream far from the new world around her. There was no
one left to mourn for the ones who’d died now. No one left to laugh about an
old tale, or to drink to their memories. It was all just a violent chaos now,
she thought, and no one left to weep for the loss. But she was still alive, she
told herself. And she intended to carry on living, even despite everyone and
everything she’d lost.

‘Bloody
graveyards,’ she mumbled, as she headed out through the gate.

There wasn’t any
sign of spiders lurking in the village. Almost like they’d never come here.
With it being just half a dozen houses and a town hall though, maybe the
spiders didn’t see much point in sticking around. Tabitha had tried the doors
of every stone cottage, but only the last one on the road would open. It was
small, cosy. Ivy and flowers crowded the front garden.

‘Hello?’ she
called quietly into the cottage, closing the front door behind her. The carpet
was heavenly soft on her bruised bare feet. No one had been here in weeks. She
wandered into the kitchen, and saw birds flitting between hanging feeders
through the back window. The food in the fridge was mouldy and reeking, but at
least the cottage doors had been shut and all the windows left intact. The
spiders hadn’t been here. Every room seemed half the size it should be. Some
old post on the table told her where she was. She’d never heard of the village
before, though the post code was familiar. Pale and shivering, Tabitha was half
tempted to light a fire. The old stone fireplace had a neat stack of logs
beside it; no gas flame or broken electrics. Just good old fashioned firewood.
Desperate for warmth, Tabitha rummaged in the kitchen drawers for matches. She
paused as a thought crossed her mind. She thought better of lighting a fire
then, in case the smoke from the chimney gave her away to anything hunting her.
Instead she plundered the wardrobes upstairs for as many fleecy tops and thick
winter socks as she could find. It wasn’t a cold day, but she felt a chill that
ran right into her bones after last night. She binned the sodden hospital gown
and her scorched belt, knotting the surviving half of her mum’s ribbon around
her wrist like a bracelet. She pulled on her fourth jumper, and put on pyjama
bottoms and a woolly hat for good measure. The soft warm bed was perfection;
even better than the feel of the thick carpet beneath her feet. A heaven she
hadn’t felt in weeks.

‘Jesus Christ,
that’s good,’ she whispered, climbing in beneath the thick heavy covers. She
stamped every thought down and fell into a sweet, sweltering sleep.

 

Tabitha woke from her dreams with a
terrified jump. She sat up and looked around at a chintzy room she didn’t
recognise. It was the cottage, in the quiet village. She remembered now. She’d
been a world away while she slept, dodging white eyes and flaming teeth in the
frozen dark. She stretched her legs out in the glorious warmth of the big bed,
and threw off the thick hot covers. The clock beside the bed said ten, but it
wasn’t ticking. The looming grey skies out of the window made it feel like
evening. It didn’t really matter what time it was, though. She wasn’t going
anywhere.

She felt drowsy
as she hobbled down the creaking staircase. Peeled off her hot jumpers along
the way. Every muscle in her body was stiff and achy. She felt a faint hunger
pang, but it passed while she sat down on the couch to rub her aching feet. Her
dry mouth and her headache told her that it was water she needed most of all.
The taps in the kitchen only offered up a spluttering brown sludge, as usual. Her
search of the place didn’t turn up any bottles of water anywhere, but the
kettle was almost full. She poured herself a glass from it, and gulped it down
with all the desperation of a man lost in the desert in an old movie. She
downed another glass and glanced nervously up at the ceiling over the kitchen
side, just to be sure there was nothing lurking there. She hoped Mog was
alright, all those miles away. Though she didn’t think he’d be sitting around
in her kitchen worrying about her. The thought made her smile; that he might be
sitting around on the window ledge fretting about her being gone. Her smile
turned to tears, as her thoughts of missing Mog led to thoughts of missing
everyone. What was she supposed to do now, on her own in the world? What was the
point of fighting to survive if there was no left to care about, or to care
about her? Tabitha hugged herself as she shuffled back into the living room,
sniffling and sobbing as she hauled her sore muscles back up the creaking
staircase.

She lay in bed
and curled up under the warm covers, looking through the window at the
darkening sky. Her eyes were pink with tears; crying had left her with damp
clumped eyelashes and a subtle stiffness in the skin on her cheeks. The pale
sky through the window felt as numb and dead as she did. Nothing in it, nothing
happening. Only a bird, flitting by for a second. All she could do was nestle
down in the bed covers, and try not be awake to think about everything.

 

The sun was rising on a new day when she
woke up, and for one sweet second she was blissfully unaware until everything
came back to her. The loss felt removed though, or maybe she did. At least for
now. Tabitha stretched out in the bed, and felt the sting of stiff muscles. How
could they be sorer today than they were yesterday? She sat up and coughed to
the silent house, and stood up to stretch out her back. The stretching turned
into a lazy yoga session, a piecing-together of everything she could remember
from a couple of half-arsed lessons. Emma had been going through a heavy-duty
fitness phase at the time, and persuaded Tabitha to go with her to the classes.
Tabitha would have given anything to have Emma around again. To have anyone
around again. The silence and the loneliness here only made her grief feel all
the stronger. She stopped her yoga for a second and just stood there, halfway
through a salute to the sun. She stared at the white wall through the door in
the hallway, blank as her mind.

‘No,’ she told
the silence; told herself. She couldn’t just get lost in grief. She pulled her
frozen gaze away from the wall and looked around the room. How could she have
made such a bloody mess after one day here? Tabitha opened the window for a
breeze and straightened out the bed sheets. Scrunched-up tissues littered the
floor like paper snowballs; she’d already cried her way through every tissue in
the cottage. She gathered them up and stuffed them into the wicker bin,
covering up the damp hospital gown in there. She tried not to think about the
fake feel of the
plasticky
gown against her skin. She
pulled on a thin jumper and jeans, both too baggy for her but infinitely more
human than the gown.

‘That’s better,’
she told the room, which was looking much more presentable. There was a cool
breeze blowing in with the birdsong, with more a hint of autumn about it than
the warmth of summer. It occurred to her then that winter would be on the way
too, and winter would be tough. She hadn’t thought about the seasons this much
before, not beyond the superficial aspects like dark mornings and rainy days.
Come the dark winter days there’d be no heating, no light, no running water.
Lighting fires would be risky. Well, everything was risky now. But a cold dark
winter was going to make things much worse.

‘I wish you were
here Mum,’ she whispered. Mum would know what to do.

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