It was a slow, dull evening on the Liberator. No one seemed much interested in the Galactic Monopoly game they were playing. Then Dayna suggested telling ghost stories instead. Avon groaned inwardly but let the others go ahead.
Tarrant's was just a very bad summary of Halloween Nightmare at the Hostel on Elm Street on Friday the 13th Part XCVII, though Cally looked a bit ill during a few parts. Avon supposed she didn't see many horror movies.
Dayna's was recognizable to anyone who'd read The Face of Pan, if you assumed the cosmic force Pan represented had an uncanny resemblance to the Federation. Dayna, unsurprisingly, said it was a story her father had told her.
Then, Cally told her story. It was a relatively bone chilling story of a sort of Auron monster. Long ago, there had been a gang of thieves, preying on travellers. They took their captives back to camp and tortured them to death in hideous ways (Cally, unlike Tarrant, saw no reason to specify exactly what these hideous ways were, just that they were very prolonged and painful [rather like Tarrant's story telling]).
Then, one day, they captured a telepath (this was when fully active telepaths were still rare, Cally said). They tortured him to death, the same as they had all the other prisoners, which proved a terrible mistake.
"Their camp was soaked with the psychic force - all the pain and anger and despair - of the people they'd killed," Cally explained. "But it was trapped there, it couldn't reach the bandits. But, then, the telepath died."
Apparently, death linked the telepath to his predecessors. The psychic force of his mind (or astral projection, Avon supposed, since the telepath was dead after all) was able to link that force to the living world.
Only one of the bandits, the youngest of the outlaws, a youth who was sent to collect firewood and who was the farthest from the camp when it all happened, survived. He stumbled into a nearby village days later, still screaming. The villagers made out enough from his ravings to gather a force from neighboring towns and send it to the bandits camp.
The bandits were all dead by they time they got there. Cally did get a bit gruesome at this point, describing how several bandits had killed themselves. One, for example, had apparently clawed out his eyes to keep from seeing whatever it was he saw. Then, he clawed his ears into mutilated deafness. Then, tore at his nose to stop something only he could smell. He had been clawing away at his skin, to keep from feeling whatever it was he felt, when he bled to death. A few, Cally admitted, were found unmarked, their dead faces frozen in fear.
The villagers knew better than to stay long enough to bury them or to take the time to take the bodies with them to bury elsewhere. They set fire to the camp and left as fast as they could ride. It was still said that anyone foolish enough to sleep at that place would be troubled by terrible dreams - if they escaped alive at all.
Avon tried not to yawn.
"Does that really happen on Auron?" Vila asked nervously. "Do telepaths stick around after they die?"
"Psychic forces," Cally said. "Nothing with personality, really. And they don't last that long."
"Are you certain?"
"They don't have bodies, Vila," Cally said patiently. "Where would they get the energy?"
"From other telepaths," Avon said. "Where else?"
"What, you mean vampires?" Cally said, amused.
"Why not? You produce psychic energy, more of it than you need or you you wouldn't be able to sense each other from the extra that bleeds out. Why shouldn't a dead telepath live on that? Your planet probably needs something like that, scavengers cleaning up all the psychic mess you leave lying around."
"And going around killing people. Don't forget, they are vampires," Dayna said, grinning.
Avon shrugged. "Mosquitoes are vampires. So are other parasites. Why would a vampire have to kill everyone? It would just need enough to keep going."
"So long as it got people to cooperate and feed it instead of fighting," Tarrant said. "That doesn't seem likely."
Avon looked blandly at Tarrant. "I imagine there are some people who would do whatever it wanted if it just fluttered its eyes at them."
"Have you heard stories like that?" Cally asked.
"Once or twice. Your story just reminded me of one. A man died, but his mind was able to move from body to body - dead ones. I don't think he could take over ones still alive."
"What happened to him?"
"Nothing. He's supposed to still be out there."
"Waiting for his next victim?"
"Probably. It's not much of a ghost story otherwise. That's my offering, by the way. A ghost steals other bodies, haunts people, and is still out there. The end."
"Avon!" Dayna said. "You aren't calling that your ghost story! You have to do better than that."
"It's the best your going to get out of me. Most of the dead people I've met have the good manners to stay that way. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have better things to be doing."
Avon didn't hurry, so there was no reason to be surprised that Vila had reached his room first. It was about time, after all. Vila looked nervous and afraid. Avon's fault. Vila didn't remember - he never remembered - but Avon had skirted too close to the truth. That always made Vila skittish.
"What you said," Vila's voice was high and nervous. "About vampires. About ghosts. That was just a story, right?"
"Of course, Vila. Just a story." Avon's jacket would just be in the way. He took it off.
"And the ghost, the one who moved from body to body . . . ."
Avon sat down on the edge of his bed, rolling up his sleeves. "He haunted one person, maybe the only one he knew would feed him."
"Why? Why would he feed him? Why didn't he run away?"
Answers didn't matter, not now. Touching on the truth made Vila skittish, but the event itself would be forgotten come morning. If Vila even noticed it happening, something Avon had certainly never seen signs of.
So, he answered the question. "He did, sometimes. He killed him instead, sometimes. Or killed whatever abandoned bag of bones the ghost was walking around in at the time. But he always came back. Besides, it was the man's fault he'd died. He killed him. Or failed to save him. Same thing."
"But it's not true?" Vila whispered, voice as frightened as a child's.
He must remember, Avon thought. He's so afraid - always so afraid - just before it begins.
Avon's voice was very gentle. "No, it's not true."
Then Vila forgot his questions and his fears, burying his fangs in Avon's profferred wrist.
Knowing he wouldn't remember, with his free hand Avon gently stroked his brother's head, waiting for him to finish.