Actions

Work Header

Ghost Lights

Work Text:

Getting into the abandoned Correction Centre had not proved to be much of a problem, but Tarrant was already beginning to suspect that getting out again was going to be far more difficult.

He and Dayna had crawled in through a loose panel – well, it had been loose enough after Dayna had finished with it – but almost immediately afterwards, they’d somehow lost sight of it. The walls around them were all an identical pale, glowing blue and their forced entrance seemed to have been swallowed up. All of the walls now looked not only exactly the same, but equally undamaged. Improbably so, for a place that was a good few centuries old.

“An illusion?” said Dayna.

Tarrant reached out to touch first one wall and then another. “If it is, it’s playing with more than just visuals.” He glanced around him more slowly. “Where is the light coming from?”

“Well, Avon did say that evanium was practically indestructible and inexhaustible. That’s why we’re here. It looks as if he might be right – something’s keeping the power going.”

Tarrant didn’t relax his stance one iota. “Or somebody else had the same idea as Avon, and they’ve switched the lights on for us.”

“Or several someones,” said Dayna, pulling out her gun. “Could be.”

“Can’t be too careful, can you?”

 

They walked stealthily along the corridor – alert and armed, two young hunters in search of prey and wary of other predators. Dayna halted suddenly, however, hearing a whisper to one side of her, and she swung round, firing a shot that hit the wall and gave a shower of sparks, causing Tarrant to yell.

“Dayna!” But he sounded more resigned than truly annoyed. “When I want my nose singed, I’ll ask, thanks.”

“Sorry,” she said, and turned her head back in the direction of the sound again, frowning, but it seemed to have gone. “I thought I heard something.”

Tarrant touched the wall again, more gingerly. “Avon said evanium had some odd properties. I don’t suppose they had weapons like yours when they built it.”

“I’d be surprised if they did,” said Dayna. “I only finished putting it together yesterday. It’s your basic energy weapon, but with a bit of an extra kick – I’ve got a self-recharging Jamalian Quartz crystal in the –”

“Well, I suggest you try not to fire it at the walls again. Or at me.”

Dayna gave a grin, but only a moment later she could have sworn she heard the whispers again – this time close enough to almost make out words. And when she turned back, Tarrant had vanished and she was alone in the unnerving, glowing corridor.

“Hey,” she said, and ran forward, rounding the corner, only to find there was still no sign of him. She stopped, feeling a cold, sick uncertainty in the pit of her stomach. The experimental weapon in her hand suddenly seemed a whole lot less comforting. This was a Correction Centre, after all, even if it was too old to be a Federation one. That meant it was a place that was probably designed specifically to do funny things to the mind of the prisoners who’d been sent to this planet, back in the more anarchic and primitive days of space colonisation.

She raised her bracelet towards her mouth. “Cally? Can you hear me? Something weird is going on down here.”

There was no answer. Avon had also said that the way evanium power sources worked, the entire building was also lined or wired with it – that it was all in some sense part of the circuit, even if that was an immensely crude way of described a highly sophisticated power system. He’d told them it was possible that the effects might interfere with their communications and teleport. That was the main reason they’d been set down outside the complex rather than inside, nearer to the power source. It also meant that the only real way out was the hole they’d made – the one they’d lost seconds after entering.

“Great,” said Dayna, and gripped her gun more tightly, as she advanced down the corridor. “What else did I expect?”

 

Tarrant had also made the same unwelcome discovery about his bracelet no longer working. It wasn’t surprising, but it underlined his current isolation, and he didn’t like it.

“Damn,” he said. Something about this place was setting his teeth on edge and his hair on end, and it was hard to pinpoint what it was. It hummed very faintly and the walls glowed softly, a light clinical blue and he supposed maybe that was meant to be calming. But since he knew that this place could also play mind games, it only made everything seem all the more sinister to him.

He could also, he was beginning to realise, hear something – somebody whispering. He turned around, still unable to see anyone, and it didn’t sound anything like Dayna. It came and went a few times, getting increasingly nearer but as yet invisible.

“Not very impressive,” said a voice almost in his ear.

Despite himself, Tarrant jumped, but when he swung around, gun at the ready, there was nothing there. He knew the voice, though. It sounded much too like his own.

“Come on, Del. Try harder. You never could keep up,” said the voice again.

This time Tarrant saw a figure ahead of him for an instant, like a ghost. His brother, Deeta.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, gritting his teeth. “It’s an illusion. I know that. You’re dead.”

The image returned for another instant. “If you’d tried harder, I might still be alive.”

Tarrant set his face and held onto his anger to counteract the way its words managed to get into his head, despite the obviousness of the ploy. “You’re not my brother. And even if you were, you know damned well the fault was yours. You never could shoot a man in the back, could you?”

Deeta wavered and vanished without returning. That, oddly, hurt more than the apparition had done. Tarrant lowered his weapon, swallowing back emotion he would rather ignore.

“True,” said a voice from behind him. “But what about me, eh, Captain?”

When they’d asked Orac about this place, his searches had uncovered ancient records that had made a warning tale out of the complex. People had claimed it had had to be closed down because it had driven too many of its convict patients insane. Avon had dismissed it as legend, most likely started to help keep scavengers away, but Tarrant was beginning to feel that it sounded entirely plausible.

Slowly, nevertheless, he turned to face his next ghost.

“Funny, isn’t it?” said Space Lieutenant Enmin. “You have an attack of principles, but it’s me that gets sacrificed for them.”

 

Dayna stopped short in front of the uncomfortably familiar figure now blocking her way along the corridor. She knew it couldn’t be real. If the power was on in this place, then it was capable of playing whatever mind games it had been designed to play, no matter how long ago that had been. Trouble was, knowing that didn’t stop it having the desired effect. Dayna moved nearer without thought. “Father,” she said.

The translucent shape of Hal Mellanby in the corridor did not smile at her. He was angry. “All those years of training, but you couldn’t stop her killing me, could you? And now you haven’t even made her pay for it. You had her at your mercy and let her go.”

Dayna raised her head, a flare of anger in her eyes. “That was for Avon and Tarrant. Next time –”

“No. You’re too much of a coward.” He shook his head. “All those weapons you made, that aggressive streak I always had to work to rein in and here you are, letting my murderer go unpunished.”

Dayna closed her eyes. “It’s not real,” she muttered under her breath. “Not real, not real.” She breathed in and out, irritated with herself for being so easy to manipulate – but then she was an actual living person and she cared about other people. It was a machine, that was all. If it genuinely knew anything about her father, it would have had him stand there and argue with her about sparing her enemies, not killing them. And dead or alive, she had never been prepared to agree with him on that issue.

“Anyway,” she added, “don’t try to make me feel guilty. I know whose fault it was, and she will pay. That’s all there is to it.”

She opened her eyes, proud to see the apparition vanish, only to find it was abruptly replaced by Lauren’s body, still beaten and strung up in front of her, and she cried out, falling to her knees. She always focused on Hal’s murder – on the thing that could be avenged – and avoided the memory of her adopted sister’s brutal death at the hands of the Sarrans. Dayna choked back tears, feeling sick, even while the anger rose in her, that some idiot machine was doing this to her.

“Where were you when I needed you?” said Lauren, although the dead body in front of Dayna didn’t move. The words were in her head. “You knew I was never quite as good as you in a fight. You should have remembered sooner – you should have come to save me.”

Dayna screwed up her face, and then drew in her breath and raised herself on her knees. “Shut up! My sister would never have said that to me – never!”

“Well, it’s not her, is it?” said Hal from somewhere behind her. “It’s taken from your mind. You feel these things. Interesting, isn’t it? Not something we ever tried out, but then our work was always more on the practical side.”

Dayna wiped her eyes and got to her feet. “All right, then, so let’s assume I’ve learned my lesson now – go away!”

“Do you really want me to? I don’t know if you do. Isn’t this better than nothing?”

Dayna caught her breath, and then slowly reached out towards the figure of Hal. There was an unexpected appearance of solidity to the illusion and she was badly tempted to try and touch it. “You’re not him,” she said, setting her face and glaring. “Besides, who wants a pet ghost to carry around with them?”

“Isn’t that what you’ve made for yourself as it is?”

Dayna clenched her fists. Wouldn’t you know it? she thought. Someone had left the complex’s psychotherapist AI switched on for a few hundred years and it had inevitably gone haywire. Probably all down to rusty circuits – or maybe it was sheer boredom. Perhaps they should send it a space Monopoly set and tell it to challenge Orac? It might keep them both quiet for a change.

“Father,” she said, and couldn’t keep back the tears. She was shaking despite her attempts to ignore her ghosts, and she stretched out her hand again. “Father!”

 

Tarrant strode on past the illusory officer, pretending that the image had no effect on him. That was, after all, how one went through life most of the time, wasn’t it?

The image dogged him, however, always in front again, no matter how much he moved. He stopped and leant against the wall. “Look,” he said, forgetting there was no point in talking to imaginary people, “you’d had it anyway. There was nothing I could have done to change that, even if I had turned back. And it was my chance to get away. I don’t regret it. I had no choice.”

“I was screaming – I was screaming and you left me to die alone.”

Tarrant didn’t need any reminding of that. “I couldn’t help.”

“I was screaming – terrified – and you just carried on running.”

Tarrant stared at him. “Don’t try and make me feel sorry for you. I owed you for that last trip, but you could be a bastard – and if you’d known what I was doing, you’d have damn well shot me and never felt guilty for it!”

But he did remember Enmin screaming and begging behind him. He remembered it far, far too well.

“Told your new friends what you did to the old ones, have you? I bet you haven’t.”

Tarrant laughed, breaking something of its hold on him. “As if Avon would care. He doesn’t trust me anyway.”

But there was still screaming somewhere – no, not screaming. It was too quiet for that. Sobbing, maybe, Tarrant thought in bewilderment until he remembered: Dayna!

He followed the sound, racing down the corridor in alarm. He wasn’t sure he’d heard Dayna crying before, although no doubt she had over her father and her sister, but not when he was around. He found her, huddled on the floor as he rounded the next corner. It wasn’t as surprising as it seemed, he realised, as he reached her. Dayna was the youngest of any of them, but more importantly than that, she hadn’t been brought up in the Federation. She’d grown up in hiding on a hostile planet, but she hadn’t had to bury her feelings or had them drugged out of existence. She hadn’t learned how not to care about anything because you couldn’t afford to. That was a lesson she’d been taught only lately.

Tarrant knelt down beside her and grasped hold of her, before slipping his hand into hers and tightening its hold. She didn’t seem to react to him, although her crying was silent now; unwilling tears rolling down her cheeks. “Dayna,” he said in her ear. “Dayna! None of this is real. You know that. Don’t let whatever it is get a rise out of you.”

Dayna blinked and looked at him, registering his presence at last. She brushed the tears away with impatience, and she was shaking, although he realised when he met her gaze with something almost like pride, that it was with pure fury.

“It is real,” she said. “That’s the trouble. Father’s dead, and so is Lauren. Still, I’ll remember what I’ve got to look forward to – because one day soon, I am going to make Servalan pay.” Then she closed her eyes, her tone losing its hardness. “But what if I don’t? What if I can’t? What’s the point, then?”

Tarrant didn’t argue. “I know.”

“You know what’s truly terrifying, though?” she said, attempting to brush over the moment as she gradually recovered control and pulled herself back together. “Somewhere in here there’s a computer that’s even more messed up than Orac.”

“Which is saying something.”

“Exactly,” said Dayna. “Between you and me, I think we ought to blow it to bits. We just need to get out of this maze first.”

Tarrant grinned briefly, but then frowned in thought, catching hold of her arm as she stood again. “When I found you, I was focusing on you – or where the sound was coming from, rather. I didn’t stop to think about anything else, and that seemed to cut through it all. So if we can keep our minds fixed on something we choose, maybe we can find our way out?”

“All right,” said Dayna and gave a brief nod. “I’ve thought of something. Lead on.”

Tarrant folded his arms. “No, no. You first.” He followed, watching her closely. Thinking of Dayna had worked for him earlier and she made for an enjoyable sort of fixation, he had to admit. She was very much alive, especially compared to this haunted, clinical place, fiercely so, and in vivid colours. She was dangerous, too, in the best kind of way. And thanks to their visit to Ultraworld not so long ago, he had cause to know how it felt to get up close without being injured – even how it felt to kiss her. He wouldn’t mind getting the chance again, if he could do it without incurring an injury. Or at least, not a serious one. She was worth a little pain.

“Hey,” said Dayna, stopping beside a dull grey section, and trying to pull open a door. Tarrant gave her a hand, tugging at it until it gave, despite its long-unused and stiffened state.

“Amazing,” Dayna said, nimbly slipping through it. “I can hardly believe it. Your idea worked!”

Tarrant pulled the door shut after them. “Thanks, Dayna. Any time.”

“Out of interest,” said Dayna, as they found themselves in darkness again, “what were you thinking about?”

Tarrant considered lying, but it was easier to tell the truth when he couldn’t see her. “You.”

“Me?” said Dayna. “I’d be flattered if I wasn’t the only female on the planet right now. You’re worse than Vila.”

“But you like me better.”

“Can’t imagine why, though.”

“What about you?” he asked, genuinely curious, although he made it a joke. “What did it for you?”

Dayna switched on her torch and gave a spectral grin. “My latest design. The vaporiser gun was a good start, but I need to get something a bit more adjustable. I didn’t tell you before you used it, but the current model’s still a bit erratic. Once or twice, it was a lot more combustible than it ought to be. But I think I’ve come up with a solution at last, so at least this place is good for something.”

“Why am I not surprised?” said Tarrant.

They both let themselves adjust to the comparative darkness and began to explore their new surroundings. Dayna shone her torch about, picking out grey walls and doors as they passed. Some of them had symbols on them and arrows, which Dayna appeared to be following.

“This must have been the staff area,” said Tarrant, instinctively keeping his voice low in the gloom. They’d stepped behind the stage now, it seemed, and there was no glamour of any kind on this side.

Dayna didn’t seem to be listening. She suddenly moved on ahead. “Aha,” she said, disappearing in through the nearest door, and as he followed, she pulled down a lever and the lights came on.

Tarrant blinked at the sudden change, but again, it was all plain out here – these were even now, dusty and disused, blank institutional corridors of a type that was all too familiar to anyone who’d grown up in a Federation dome. There was a slight rattling that sounded as if the air conditioning might be considering giving up sometime soon, but it made a change from that soft humming.

“Auxiliary power system and generator,” said Dayna. She gave him a wide smile. “And guess what? It uses keon power cells.”

Tarrant couldn’t see yet that that was anything to get excited about. “And?”

“Come on, Tarrant,” she said, waiting for him to get it. “I’m sure you have got a brain in there, whatever Avon says.”

He pulled a face at her, but he couldn’t bring himself to mind. He was beginning to follow her drift. “Keon cells – they share some of the same properties as your Jamalian Quartz. And so presumably, they would also have an interesting reaction when brought into contact with evanium?”

“The two systems are entirely separate,” said Dayna, continuing to poke at the wiring, and pull out, one by one, several of the cells in question. The lights flickered but remained on. “And neither of them are very combustible on their own, but I suppose it was also a back-up fail safe. If the AI goes haywire or any of the patients or prisoners for that matter, or you just need to shut the whole thing down, you’ve got the means to hand. Because otherwise, evanium goes on for centuries, like Avon said.”

Tarrant picked up one of the keon power cells and turned it over in his hands. It was dark grey, and heavy, not entirely unlike a sort of square-ish hand grenade. “I’ve noticed. But how do you plan on bringing the two into contact without fatally shorting your own circuits?”

“I’m working on that,” said Dayna. She sat down on the nearby table and pulled open the first of the cells. “First, I need to remove the protective casing on these.”

“What about the evanium? We were supposed to bring some back.”

She looked at him. “We shut it down, and then we can pick up some from the wreckage.”

“Will it still be any use then?”

Dayna shrugged, her expression hard. Then she looked up again, less certain. “Perhaps we should try again. Avon did want some quite badly.”

“No,” said Tarrant. He caught hold of her. “No. The most important thing is to shut that thing down.” If they couldn’t make it, Avon or Cally or Vila might decide to have a try, and they all had pasts of their own it could make several multiple course meals out of and that couldn’t end well. He frowned, as he thought further about the problem. “Look – how does evanium work, and if it’s so great, why isn’t everyone using it?”

Dayna set to work on the next keon cell. “I think it sort of recharges from everything – light, air, vegetation, kinetic energy, mental energy –”

“Bad memories?”

“Probably,” she said. “Oh.”

“So, that thing in there,” said Tarrant, “will be getting stronger while we get weaker, won’t it?”

Dayna nodded.

“Avon sent us down to be digested by a battery!”

Dayna screwed up her face, and laughed.

“I don’t think it’s very funny.”

She grinned. “It is when you put it like that. All right, though. I agree: let’s kill it. You find the way out of here while I finish this, or we’re going to go up with it.”

 

If this area was the staff section, then logically there had to be an external exit somewhere nearby. It was merely a matter of finding it, and getting it open again despite centuries of disuse.

Tarrant tried his bracelet once more, but the nearby evanium power source was still causing too much interference. Well, either that, or something had happened to the Liberator, which you could never rule out, but he chose to be optimistic while he had the choice. He shrugged and carried on searching.

 

When he made it back, Dayna was sitting on the table, engrossed in the last details of her work on the power cells, holding her breath as she prised the last piece of casing off the last one.

“Isn’t that supposed to be bad for your health?” said Tarrant

“Only if I get old enough for it to matter.”

“No worries there, then,” Tarrant said. “I’ve found a way out. Down the left-hand corridor – right to the end. Couldn’t actually get the door to open, but I made a large hole in the wall instead. Seemed to do the trick.”

“Good,” she said. “Now I just need to get these into the internal workings.” She held up an odd item she’d evidently constructed from two metal edgings from the table and rubber lining from the power system’s inner workings. She watched his blank expression fail to change, and gave an impatient sigh. “It’s a catapult. Not a great one, but it should be adequate. After all, I can’t fire a loose keon cell, and I can’t stick my hand up an evanium-coated vent while holding one of these, so it seemed like the only way.”

Tarrant could just about recognise it for what it was now. He’d heard of them – an archaic child’s weapon, or toy.

“Oh, come on, didn’t you ever play with –? Oh,” said Dayna and gripped his arm as she slipped off the table. “Poor Tarrant. Were Federation alphas too good to play with such primitive things?”

“Something like that.”

Dayna gathered up the keon cells. “Wish me luck,” she said, entirely grave suddenly. Then she flashed another brief smile. “And when I yell, get ready to run!”

 

Dayna slipped back in through the door into the main complex. Its clean, faintly glowing interior seemed even more uncanny now, as if it was trying to claim her, to make her part of it. The humming seemed to be inside her head.

She took hold of herself and fixed her thoughts on the catapult, on the angle she would needed and exactly what her targets should be to have the maximum effect to spread the reaction through the entire system. The whole place was one giant circuit.

She opened up a cooling vent and shot her first missile into it. She moved back down the corridor and took aim at the wall, the power cell hitting it with a fizzle and sticking in place as its power drained into the wall, leaving a faint green stain and causing it to slowly begin giving off sparks that moved along the corridor towards the centre of the complex.

“Yes!” said Dayna under her breath, and rounded another corner, shooting another of her hand-made missiles towards the farthest wall, with the same result.

The humming was beginning to turn a little more high-pitched, interspersed with a slight crackling. Dayna gave a satisfying smile. Take that, she told it, as she backed further away, shooting another keon cell with the catapult. This one slid down the wall, but then latched onto it just above floor level. There must have been some further safeguards when they’d built it, but evidently whatever they were hadn’t lasted this long, Dayna thought. Maybe a glazing or something that had been eroded away over the centuries while the evanium went on, indefatigable.

The crackling intensified and she hastily moved nearer to the exit again, shooting the last, before racing back into the staff area.

“Time to go!” she yelled at Tarrant, and raced him to the hole in the wall.

Outside, they could hear the whole place beginning to rumble and some sections were already exploding. As one, they raised their bracelets –

“Teleport – now!” said Tarrant.

 

“Don’t tell me,” said Dayna, as they watched the complex finish exploding on the vis-screen on the Liberator flight deck bare moments later. “Too gaudy.”

Tarrant grinned. “But effective.” They exchanged a glance and he knew that she shared his sense of satisfaction at having rid the universe of that correction centre. Well, that and the pleasure of a few fireworks on the side.

“I asked you to fetch me some evanium samples,” said Avon, unamused by their pleasure in things that went boom in the night. “And yet somehow instead you interpret that to mean you should blow up the sole source of the material for several thousand light years.”

Dayna shrugged. “It wasn’t very friendly. You’d have done the same. Anyway, look – there’s a giant heap of evanium rocks for you to examine at if you want.”

Active evanium was what I needed.”

“Sorry, Avon,” Dayna said. “Trust me, though – you’d have done the same.”

Avon glared.

 

“Are you all right?” Dayna asked, catching Tarrant in the hexagonal corridor afterwards, and putting a hand to his arm lightly. This must have shaken him nearly as much as it had her, coming so soon after his brother’s death. She felt a little sick again at the memory of Father and Lauren, and she’d had more time to live with that.

Tarrant gave a small, wry grimace. “No, not really. Are you?”

“No,” she said, with a ghostly smile. “Not really.”

“At least we’re alive.”

Dayna lifted her gaze to meet his, making it a challenge. “And all in one piece – and barely even singed. Could be worse.” Then she tilted her head to one side. “Could be better.” Kiss me, her whole being said, and you never know, I might even not try and kill you for it this once.

Tarrant bent his head towards hers, but only to touch her cheek. “You’ve got a graze there. Something must have hit you on the way out.” Then he did kiss her, more gently than she had expected. She tightened her grip on his arm, realising that she wasn’t sure what she’d have done if he’d walked away instead.

“Er,” he said, after a pause, “so how about we go talk it over in my quarters?”

Dayna had to laugh; it wasn’t exactly the chat-up line of a suave Space Officer. She couldn’t keep her smile away, though, no matter how casual she pretended to be. “How about we go to mine?”

“Fine by me.”

She led the way. “Just one thing, Tarrant. If you’re doing this to try and impress any little blue men with nosy computers, I don’t want to know.”

“No! Cross my heart and hope to die.” Then he paused. “On the other hand, I suppose you never know what Orac is up to –”

“What a horrible thought. He would, too,” said Dayna. “Are you trying to put me off?”

Tarrant kissed her up against the door to her cabin. “Forget I mentioned it,” he said in her ear. “Please.”

Dayna tugged him into the cabin before anyone else came wandering past and caught them. She moved nearer, shifting in against him, glad of his warmth. Some days it seemed as if space really was just as icy cold as everyone said it was. She shivered and then raised her head, wanting to say something about being alive – that it wasn’t something, it was everything – but she caught the glint in his eye and realised that she didn’t have to. She breathed out. There always were a lot of things she never had to spell out to Tarrant.

And they were alive, and alive together; never more so. They could keep the past at bay for a while longer.