DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Cheryl Rice and is copyright (c) 1978 by Cheryl Rice. Rated PG13. Originally published in Beta Niobe Revisited and reprinted in Archives #1.

After the Stars Are Gone

Cheryl Rice

After the ball is over, after the break of dawn

After the dancers' leaving, after the stars are gone...

Now, of course there is no such thing as dawn or daybreak on board a starship. But there are beings who are accustomed to such an event, so an artificial cycle of light and darkness is established to help keep them healthy and happy.

But the main topic of discussion here is not just any ship -- it is -- oh, you guessed it already -- the U. S. S. Enterprise. That gallant vessel, pride of the Federation and scourge of the Klingons and/or Romulans. That microcosm of humanity, that showcase of interspecies amity, that -- well, you get the idea.

And to narrow our topic further, we are not interested in just any denizen of the Big E. No -- it is her First Officer with whom we areconcerned, the Vulcan, this "dawn," and his memories of the previous night.

It has been said that Vulcans do not sleep (also that they do not bear false witness, but then that is someone else's tale), but they do enter a state of deep meditation which serves much the same purpose. This ship-morning finds Mr. Spock seated in his quarters, fingers steepled before his face, eyes raptly staring into nothingness. The hours since his return from the ice-field have been spent putting his thoughts back in their usual logical order. Now they are aligned in neat Vulcan rows, now he is ready to forget if he can.

Using his usual self-discipline, Spock emerges from his meditation exactly at the predetermined time. The real world intrudes once more.

He takes a brief shower, then emerges to dress in his usual blue-shirted outfit. Another day like any other. The daily routine -- a light breakfast, then making his way to the bridge. Routine duties, routine discussion with the captain and others. All routine.

But something is different today. Try as he might, he cannot exorcise the memory of her ... wrapped in furs, smiling at him across a fire, lying beneath him, her eyes closed in ecstasy from his vigorous lovemaking. Fragments -- soft, firm flesh beneath his hands, a husky whisper, a satiated sigh, hair the color of warm honey. All so close -- yet thousands of years gone. Nothing now but dust -- no, not even that -- the planet was now completely gone, the material reduced to the hydrogen atoms from whence all substances arise and to which all things eventually return.

Vulcans do not make it a practice to talk to themselves, but on this occasion Spock realizes his human half needs a good scolding. "I must forget her. It was madness. Pure unbridled lust, jealousy against Dr. McCoy -- I wanted to kill him! Attempted murder, and I even ate meat." He makes a mental note to make that a very light breakfast, meanwhile neglecting to schedule a general overhaul of his sense of values.

Ready to go now -- to be imperturbable, to be the most perfect Vulcan this or any other universe has ever known.

But wait -- one final chore. He makes his way over to the dresser and picks up a hairbrush. The raven hair is already a sleek cap, but a strand or two might just possibly be out of place. He must check in the small mirror to assure himself that all is well and perforce catches a glimpse of his own saturnine face.

Something about it is different -- there is more life in the features than usual. Emotions have played on it recently and they have left their marks on the playing field.

The Vulcan knows a moment of almost human panic. What if others can see the signs? They must be erased, the memories further suppressed -- ruthlessly, if need be. In another time, on his maternal ancestors' planet, he could have flogged himself or worn a hair-shirt. Poor Spock -- all he has is his willpower when what he really needs is a god.

Just for a moment the human, emotional side breaks free. "It was not all bad. I made her happy for a while. It will give her something to remember through the long years -- something to live for. It was good, kind. She will be happy because of me."

He is then struck by two aspects of the situation: one, that his verb tense is wrong -- she is dead, has been for years, no future happiness for her at all; and two, while she has been made happy by the incidents of the previous night, he, as usual, has garnered nothing from the encounter but yet more heartache that he can never admit -- least of all to himself. This so shakes him that he never even notices that he has just composed a "ni-var" -- and before breakfast at that.

Afraid -- though he would have called it concerned -- about what other demons might yet be dredged up from his subconscious, the Vulcan banishes all emotion from his mind, turns away from the mirror and leaves the cabin.

Today he shall be very stern to Mr. Chekov -- very stern indeed -- and shall talk to Dr. McCoy not at all.

* * *

And you know, in some ways he is right -- she is dead -- dead and her atoms scattered. But the encounter had not been kind. It had not brought any happiness in its wake. What can be more cruel than false hope? Especially false hope where before there had been none at all.

Actually there had been a giant absence of almost anything of value during that planet's ice age -- life, intelligence, dilithium crystals. It was no one's idea of a perfect place to set up housekeeping. And this was what Zarabeth had -- all she had, after she had watched her short-term visitors leave -- apparently walking into the cliff.

She turned away slowly, pulling the hood of her fur robe over her wind-whipped hair. The snow was falling slower now, though the storm would not completely cease for several more time-circuits. Automatically the woman trudged back to the cave, scarcely noticing the dropping temperature. "Preparation" for the time journey through the Atavachron had changed her body processes slightly -- just enough to ensure her survival under these harsh conditions, and that she could never exist anywhen else.

The cave entrance drew her down, into the relative warmth and light. Still preoccupied, she made sure the barrier closed behind her. No need to let in more frigid air than was absolutely necessary. Finally Zarabeth stood in the living quarters of her place of exile. She started pulling off her heavy robe, all the while thinking of her recent lover.

Why did I let it happen? Does being this lonely make it right? I swore to Disa that I would never let another. The fire was burning low, so the woman threw some fuel on it, then sat down beside the rising flames.

Her Disa -- small, barely reaching to the statuesque Zarabeth's shoulder. But so perfectly formed -- a body all sweet curves. They had been made by Fate for each other.

Warming now, the exile stripped off the rest of her clothes and stretched out to soak up the heat, fire-shadows dancing over her pale silk skin. Trying to chase away a chill that came from within. Funny -- she hadn't thought of Disa, Zor Kahn's favorite wife, the main reason for her banishment, for tens of moon-changes. It must have been the visitors.

In reality, Zarabeth knew it had been Spock. He had seemed to have such promise. If nothing else, he was exotic -- and she'd always found the unusual to be exciting. But he had been like other males -- too eager to dominate, to take his own pleasure without worrying about hers. Not like Disa. And to think the Vulcan had really believed that story about why she was there. Politics indeed -- Zor Kahn would never have been cruel, or wasteful, enough to banish a political enemy, real or suspected, to a place like this. They were promptly killed. Well, on occasion they were tortured a bit first, but it was still kinder than this living death.

No -- the Kahn had been fiendishly kind. Many units had been spent to supply this prison. Many years could be lived here. Nothing had been spared for the punishment of the woman who had dared love something that was his.

Zarabeth could still remember the dazzling horror when his soldiers had burst into the tower room to discover the two women together. And the sight of Disa being carried off, screaming, into the night. From that moment to this one, the exile had never completely forgotten those screams. She had promised to be faithful -- and until tonight she had been.

Trying to shake off her mood, Zarabeth stead up and began to prowl around the room. Restless, faster and faster. Finally she caught sight of the sleeping alcove and thoughts of Spock again intruded. His hands, warm, long fingers fumbling with clothing, touching her, stroking. But never quite right. And during one embrace the fingers on her temple -- and then, strange, sharp images in her mind. She shuddered delicately at the distasteful memory. It was as though he had been attempting to link minds. Horrible, obscene.

The quiet of the cave began to press in on the shaken woman. Alone -- alone again. After that rush of hope. Now nothing but endless, empty years loomed before her.

Loneliness and madness. Before this day, she had always held onto some scrap of hope. Someone else would be sent here to share her exile -- another someone to love. But after this night, she finally realized the only one for her was Disa. And she was dead -- or had yet to be born. Zarabeth had even more trouble expressing thoughts about nonlinear time than would Spock, seconds/thousands of years in the future, trying to assure McCoy he had recovered.

This was what Zor Kahn had counted on -- her hanging onto a meaningless life through years of despair and insanity. This was one victory he would not have.

Zarabeth made up her mind quickly and completely. But how and where to do it? Not in the cave -- not in her prison cell.

Nothing to do inside but turn off the heat to the plants in the bottom cave and darken the lights above them. They would die quickly that way. Not even to plants would she give a longer dying than was necessary.

After pulling a robe over the nude body, she left the almost dark cave -- cheerfully, as though going to a grand party, never once looking back.

The outside was reached quickly, and this time the door was left ajar.

The storm had ceased for a while. The sky was almost clear, though the temperature was dropping rapidly. Zarabeth took a deep breath, then let out a cry of victory as she twirled in the packed snow, her robe flying out from her body like gray wings. Soon she would be free.

She set off walking, her bare feet crunching in the snow. For want of a better plan, she decided to walk toward the far mountains, across the icy plain. In the air she could smell further snow. Morning would find yet another blizzard, but it would not find her.

The only problem was that the plan was not being carried out quickly enough. Although her feet were becoming numb, she knew the cold would not kill for several hours. And Zarabeth felt she deserved release sooner than that. So she threw off the robe and continued on, her only light that which came from the coy moon that hid now and then behind a passing cloud. Finally, after stumbling, falling, then rising only to fall again, she realized her time was near.

The half frozen woman crawled into a protected hollow behind a boulder and curled up like a child peacefully going to sleep for the night. The icy gale clawed at her face, but all she felt was a tender lover's caress. Zarabeth's last coherent thought gave her happy dreams to take with her on the final journey. "He didn't do this because I loved her, it was because she loved me." And secure in the belief she had discovered an important truth, she drifted off.

In the skies, the only witnesses -- lonely, indifferent stars -- shivered as if they too were cold.

Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all,

Many the hopes that have vanished, after the ball.