The sequel to my sci-fi novel Tabitha is coming on rapidly now, so I wanted to share a sneak peek of an early scene with you. Please be aware that this is spoiler territory if you haven’t read Tabitha yet, as Sky Queen carries straight on after the events of the first book…
A night-black shape, scarred and primal, cut past cold distant stars. Scales darker than the lonely void around it. The creature’s hard white eyes watched infinity slide by. Behind them, an animal mind churned in silent space. Forgotten furies. Raptures long remembered. What it was, and what it was not. The creature’s engines rumbled on; glowing pale ghostfire. Sailing on into the abyss. Beneath its thick skin, in the cockpit around its heart, its human female lay in deathly sleep. Stone-still tentacles gripped the ceiling above her, dormant in the dark. The unmoving air, cold and glass-fragile, hung in silent hymn to the frozen shrine. Her clawed black feet. Her body tucked and shielded, foetal-funereal. Blood-red curls. Twitching eyelids.
Tabitha stood on the pier with her mum. She was eight or nine, dressed warmly, and had itchy scabs on both knees after falling off her bike days before. A salt-sharp sea breeze ruffled her frizzy ginger curls. The pier was deserted; it was just the two of them. Strangely mild for early winter. The stern iron stems of Victorian streetlights lined the faded boardwalk, elegant and decapitated. Looking out between rusted white railings, Tabitha saw the sea meld with the sky on the far horizon. One of those dusty pale dusks that felt like a dream, or an old painting half forgotten.
‘Are you alright love?’ her mum asked her softly.
‘Yeah,’ Tabitha replied, staring out at the still sea. ‘I miss Dad.’ She felt her mum’s hand squeeze hers; looked up and saw her sad smile. The early moon glowed high above like a pearl balloon. Lemon-yellow lights illuminated old hotels along the bay behind them. The smoky clouds past town were low and solid, like misted mountains in the far distance. The huge sky was powder-pale, blue and purple and smoky orange like old bruises. Seagulls sang to the sea; a sad lost call. Her mum told her something important, but Tabitha couldn’t make it out. Her voice was a muffled hum. When Tabitha looked up again, her mum was a vague flickering form. A shivering ghost, lost against the sky beyond. She was alone.
‘Mum!’ Tabitha cried out, and sat up in Seven’s cockpit. The tears came too easily; that old familiar shard of glass in her heart. Looking around, Tabitha realised that she’d been woken by a growing light in the cockpit. She smiled at Fishbowl as it climbed down from the ceiling. It came to bob there beside her seat, gentle and patient as the tide.
‘Hi you,’ Tabitha said softly, running her black hands through Fishbowl’s tapping tentacles. ‘How did you sleep? I feel like I’ve been sleeping forever.’ She ran her hard palms over the console in front of her, as if she had to remind herself how the cockpit felt. There it was, that same old static sensation that she loved so much; the only sense of touch her hands had left.
Dipping into Seven’s mind, Tabitha felt an embrace that clouded out her dreams and sad memories. A safe warm place, bright as the dawn. She leant into Seven’s mind and saw through his eyes. Saw the endless black void around them, and the lonely stars forever distant. They were drawing close to their destination; the streaming stars whipping by began to slow. A new world drew closer in the darkness. At first it was little more than a dot, though within minutes it had grown to a shining orb in the black. Soon Tabitha could make out the blue of alien oceans. An ozone halo crowned the new world. Closer now, and she could pick out the ragged edges of muddy black-brown continents. Tabitha felt butterflies in her stomach; fear and hope in equal mix. Either way, she was eager to explore. As they drew closer though and the vast planet filled their view, Tabitha saw the cracks. An endless web of glowing fractures spanned the primordial continents. Fiery faults spewed magma that would have wiped out nations, had there been any. Already Tabitha’s heartcore sank at the sight.
Seven’s black skin glowed sharp neon orange as they entered the atmosphere. He shot through high white clouds to reveal the world below. Tabitha looked out over the landscape as they headed lower, and put a black hand to her mouth. Her stark yellow eyes, wide and darting, took in the fullness of this new place. But this wasn’t their new home. This was hell.
Volcanoes burst and spewed fire in the distant hills, filling the sky with a hades growl. Tabitha stepped down from Seven’s wing onto hard black rock; not a blade of grass in sight. She pulled her catsuit hood down into a breathing mask, gagging on the stench of sulphur. The air was a stale wall, an oven heat pressing in around her. On the beach behind them, bright blue waves lapped on dead grey sand. Something slithered from the rushing surf and bared its teeth; some vile proto-serpent with a mouthful of glassy fangs. Its blind head sought her as the thing slithered up the beach. Another crawled from the waves, and another behind it. Suddenly the beach was alive with them, slithering piranha-pythons, massing like worms as they followed Tabitha’s fleshy scent. Seven growled and swept Tabitha gently behind him with a wing, putting himself before the snarling haunted tangle. White fire grew in his black throat as he rumbled his dominance.
‘No, Seven,’ Tabitha told him sadly, climbing back up on his wing. ‘There’s no need. We’re leaving.’ Seven’s harness grew around Tabitha’s waist and shoulders as she took the saddle, and she patted her mount’s neck to stop his growling. With a thought she nudged him up into the air, and left the slithering web of cheated creatures snarling hungrily below.
She sighed as they soared over the planet. There was nothing here but black rock and magma supernovas; deep chasms in the planet’s crust that glowed with a red hellish light far below. Whatever life they saw in the black deserts was fierce, crude and clear-skinned; murder-bright broods that watched and snarled and stared blind far below.
‘This isn’t our new home,’ she told Seven, giving up the search for grass and peace. Studying the hologram globe, the whole planet looked the same. A fiery desolation, broken only by cold blue waves and pits of rabid reptilia. Tabitha sank down into the cockpit and sealed out the choking sulphur sky. She studied the hologram with a blank hopeless stare, and pulled it open to fill the cockpit with a map of the stars. Running a hand through Fishbowl’s waving arms, she sighed sadly as they raced up through the atmosphere. She could feel Seven’s frustration reflect her own. Already they were looking for another planet to try. Already, after such a long journey, they’d left a new world far behind.
Black teeth grinned in the moonlit dark. A gliding blade, pushed in, soft as love. Tabitha’s heart burst and sparked like a dead star. She woke screaming and looked around at the cockpit, gasping for sanctuary and the feel of her monsters. His face was still so clear; the blade still so real.
‘Fuck you,’ she sobbed quietly, hugging her knees to her chest in the pilot seat.