Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of and is copyright (c) 1979 by Cheryl D. Rice. Originally published in Guardian #2. Rated PG.


Cheryl D. Rice

The sky had never been so blue, the air so sweet, the sunlight so pure as it laid long shimmering fingers across the ground. It was the perfect morning of a lifetime.

The boy leaned out of the open window to look down on the yard below. Every separate blade of dewed grass sparkled up at him like a field of spiky emeralds. He took a deep breath and held it until he thought his lungs would burst. Releasing it in a gusty sigh, he drew in his head. What a glorious day this was going to be!

"Say ... sleepy head. The day's half gone. Get down here for breakfast." The familiar tones of his father jerked his attention back to the present.

"Be right there." The child peeled off his pajamas and dove into a pair of much abused jeans and a light-weight shirt decorated on the front with some lettering about a fair and the faded picture of a horse. He slid his feet into scuffed boots and was halfway out the door before remembering he hadn't bothered to wash. Well, no time for that ... not on a day like this one promised to be. Besides, he had plans that would, with a little luck, include getting thoroughly dirty. His feet clattered down the carpeted steps and he raced through the currently empty front part of the house and slid into his seat at the kitchen table.

His father looked up from his breakfast in mild irritation. "About time you got here."

The boy shrugged, swallowing ham and scrambled eggs in large gulps. "I know ... I was thinking."

"Daydreaming's more like it. Now eat up. There are some chores I want you to help me get out of the way before your mother gets back from town."

"Aw, Dad ... I was gonna..."

"Never mind what you were 'gonna'. You'll be helping me this morning. If we get done, there'll be time for you to go off on your own after lunch."

The boy accepted his fate with a minimum of grumbling sine he knew from past experience it would be to no avail. The morning hours passed in a kind of blur as he helped fix a rusty pump, fed chickens and aided in starting a recalcitrant auto-plow.

After a late lunch of sandwiches, he reminded his father that he had plans of his own.

"All right. Guess I'm done with you for a while. Look ... why don't you take Merit if you think you can be careful. She hasn't been getting nearly enough exercise since your brother went off to school."

The boy, delighted, dashed off to the stables. This was even better than he had planned. He could see the chestnut mare watching him with her large, intelligent eyes as he ran toward her. So many times he had wanted to ride the beautiful animal, only to be told he was too young.

Quicker than thought, he had her bridled, saddled and was leading her out into the almost smothering heat of the farm yard. The child could feel rather than see his father watching him from the cool sanctuary of the house.

With what he hoped was nonchalant grace, he swung himself up onto the horse's back and gathered the reins carefully. Now the only problem was ... where to go?

He turned Merit's head in the direction of the ridge of hills that half encircled the farm. That was as good a place to start as any.

The mare danced skittishly at first, but he soon settled her down and they headed at a steady canter toward the tree-covered slopes that lay ahead, blued by distance.

The horse's excess energy soon evaporated in the stifling head. Both she and her rider were relieved to finally reach a wide but shallow stream bordered by ancient trees that cast a welcome shade.

Merit waded in and delicately bent her lovely head to drink. The boy wiggled into a more comfortable position in the saddle and sniffed the air. The heat was, if anything, more oppressive although the sun had hidden itself behind a bank of heavy clouds. The wind was beginning to rise, and there was a hint of rain in the distance. He briefly considered turning for home, but it seemed such a waste of opportunity. Better to go on for a while.

The mare had drunk enough so he urged her on. They happily splashed across the languidly flowing stream, sending up blossoms of spray.

The two traveled on as the ground began to rise before them. The boy was lost in the experience, conscious only of sheer exhilaration and the joy of each passing moment.

Somehow, before he knew it, they were in the hills, Merit picking her way carefully along a dusty trail that was littered with fist-sized stones. He looked around in surprise not unmixed with dismay. The trail was not only unpromising, it was totally unknown to him. He had no clear idea of how they had arrived there. He reined in the mare to a jerky stop and stood in the stirrups to see if there were any familiar landmarks around. There weren't.

To make matters even worse, the sky was now rapidly darkening, the sun lurking somewhere behind clouds the color of old pewter. Thunder muttered and grumbled nearby and a flock of small birds fluttered by in a flurry of wing-rush as if hurrying for a place of safety.

He suddenly wished that he were home. Then the practical side of his nature asserted itself. All he had to do was turn Merit around and head back.

Unfortunately, the trail was quite narrow at the point he now found himself and he was riding a good-sized animal who, to make matters worse, was now becoming increasingly unsettled by the approaching storm. As the first heavy raindrops began to pelt them, and forked lightning wrote itself with a flourish across the sky, the mare unexpectedly reared. The surprised boy fell off, landing with a thud in the rocky path.

Slightly stunned, he lay for a moment in blank dismay watching her gallop down the path. Picking himself up he started after her. Several pains were competing for his attention, but since none seemed serious, he decided to ignore them until more time presented itself. He called to the horse, but the words were ripped away by the rising wind and rain.

On he trudged through the half-dark, along the path that was rapidly turning into a deep and affectionate glue. The storm was now raging with full fury. His fears for his horse were giving way to more basic ones for his own safety.

He stumbled around a curve and almost into Merit's rump. She was standing, shivering with fright, under an outcropping of rock that loomed above the trail. He gratefully huddled against her side, coated with sticky mud, stroking her neck until finally the clouds moved on and the animal quieted.

With a groan, he re-mounted, and the soggy twosome set out for home. With some effort they made their way down the path and across the now swollen stream. It was almost dark before he could see the light of home in the valley below.

He reined in Merit, enjoying the scene it made. Though not usually possessed of a contemplative nature, he could not help but appreciate beauty when it was laid out so lavishly before him.

The storm had cleared the air and it was soft and clear. The house lights were sprinkling the blue evening dusk with their yellow glow, a picture to hold fast in memory for a lifetime.

The boy urged on the tired horse, suddenly aware of how happy he was to have a safe haven. His hands stung from the rubbing of the reins on scraped skin and he ached deep in his bones from the fall. To be home ... to be safe ... to be taken care of ...

But a part of him stopped the horse short of his goal. He looked around. One of the oak trees had made a catch of stars in its branches. He looked up. Other stars twinkled cheerily, mysteriously, down at him.

On impulse, he turned Merit around and took off at a gallop across an open field, dangerous though it was in the almost complete darkness. Better to be free -- nothing was more important.

He rode on like a man with the Furies at his back ... heedless of all else. To be free was all, to be free, be free, free, free, free, free...

* * *

The watchers broke off the show with what in a human might be called exasperation.

//I told you before ... he continues to replay that.//

//With all respect, you are telling me nothing new. I have tried to guide his thoughts to different channels, but it is very difficult. He is a very strong-willed individual.//

The two wizened figures glared at the source of their frustration and turned to each other.

//I must tell you,// the fractionally younger figure insisted, //that we are not happy with the results you have achieved. A boy and a horse ... was it for this we went to all the trouble...//

The other mentally waved him to a halt. //As I have insisted time and again, he will be a better subject once he works out the feelings for himself. This confinement is torture to him. I have tried suggesting other scenarios, but the results are equally unsettling.//

//Let me see one ... an adult one for a change. All that wandering around in hills make no sense. I've checked his conscious memory ... he lived nowhere near hills when he was young.//

The older figure, apparently lost in thought, sent out a wave of pure disdain. //Think for a change. These are wish-dreams, not truth. For some reason he now wants hills. Here -- this should be a time not too long after we first encountered him, one of the high points of his career. He should be very happy. He is to be awarded one of Star Fleet's highest honors ... he is the man of the hour...//

* * *

The hour, he realized as he struggled to awaken, was quite a bit more advanced than it had any right to be. He had returned from the afternoon tour of the installations where he made polite small talk over some drinks while watching the local dignitaries make fools of themselves, had come to his room to change for the evening's ceremonies, and then ... His big mistake, he thought ruefully, was deciding to lay down to rest for a "few minutes". In fact, he had been asleep, according to the wall chronometer, for over an hour.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to fully wake. It must be this heavy gravity, he thought wearily. On the ship I don't have any trouble waking up.

The small bedroom was stuffy and he stumbled over his own boots as he walked to the window and threw it open. Cool, fresh air flooded in, fluttering the curtains and clearing his senses. He leaned out, enjoying the sensation, while an obliging handful of wind ruffled his hair and caressed his cheek.

Feeling more like himself, he stretched and, for the first time, noticed the view. This backwater planet had settings of truly unearthly beauty. The hotel for Federation personnel was perched on a steep hillside that gave out onto a vista of the river valley below and the capital city that lay on the higher hills on the other side. Now that night had fallen, the lights of evening glimmered like scales on a sleeping dragon. Buildings made indistinct and ethereal by distance seemed to flow in formal patterns which yet defied exact recognition.

He looked again at the time and told himself to stop daydreaming. He marched into the bathroom and took a good, long look at his own reflection in the small mirror over the sink. "I look," he informed his face sternly, "like Death warmed over."

The stubble of his heavy beard stained his cheeks and chin, giving him a rather rakish cast not in accord with his status. No help for it... there's no time for a shower, but I have to shave. He was just starting to let the water run when he heard the door buzzer. "Come on in, Spock."

He sighed in mild irritation. Trust the Vulcan to be prompt -- even early. Here he is, dressed no doubt in a perfectly fitting dress uniform, while his captain is now attired only in his uniform pants and excess whiskers.

Before he could become too depressed by these thoughts, an elusively familiar voice disrupted them. "Sorry, I'm not Mr. Spock. But I'd like to see you for a few minutes if I may."

The man put down his razor with a suddenly shaking hand. It can't be... Resisting an impulse to peek through the half-closed door, he took the few steps necessary and threw it open.

It couldn't be ... but it was. She stood in the middle of his bedroom, smiling serenely as if they had parted friends shortly before rather than as bitter ex-lovers four years earlier.

He tried to say something, only to find that his tongue was not in working order. He shook himself mentally, and with a disciplined effort, he regained control. "What a pleasant surprise, Janly," he managed in someone else's voice. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

Not in the least cowed by his brusque tone, she folded her arms and inspected him with her large, intelligent eyes. "You haven't changed ... still the perfect captain of the perfect ship. Still in love with the Enterprise?"

"Still in love with what's-his-name? The poet laureate of Altair 6?"

"You know quite well. Yes, I'm Mrs. Davids Neville, and I'm still very much in love since you asked."

"Glad to hear it." The man leaned against the door frame and looked his visitor up and down, being deliberately rude.

She smiled and slowly turned around so that he could appraise her completely. "Do you like what you see?"

"It will do." He couldn't keep from smiling in return. He had never overly impressed or awed her, which in some way accounted for the fact he had loved her. And she was lovely, as usual, dressed tonight in something gold and gauzy. "Life out there seems to have agreed with you."

"Oh, it does, did..." Janly stammered to a halt, for the first time appearing at a loss for words. "But that's not important. I'm here to congratulate you on your medal. Everyone who knows you is so proud."

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Taking praise well had never been one of his strong points. "Don't make too much of it. We were in the right place at the right time and all that."

"That isn't what I heard. They say that since you're such a hero you are going to be kicked upstairs to some safe desk job at the Academy. Or maybe even make you First Captain."

He stared at her, aghast. "Oh, great ... four years after you walk out on me after meeting the greatest writer since Shakespeare, you walk in again to tell me I'm going to lose the Enterprise. You're a lot of fun, lady."

She had the grace to look embarrassed. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't be so close and not say hello. Look, I even brought you a present." She dug through her large tote bag and pulled out a small green bottle topped with an elaborately chased metal stopper. "Here, I hadn't seen any for ages. Remember that one shore leave when we went to the beach and drank...?"

"Yes." His tone stopped her cold. He was amazed at how vividly the memories were replaying themselves and how they clawed and stung. "Stars' Tears ... I haven't had any since the last time I saw you."

Janly fingered the stopper reflectively. "I know it is awfully late to say 'I'm sorry', but I couldn't help myself. It was like one of those things you read in the old books. Once I met Davids, nothing else mattered. I know it's cruel, but it's true."

"Yes, that's what you said at the time. I was always surprised that you had managed to live 29 years without him."

"I hadn't, not really," she insisted softly.

"So," he went on, trying not to hear. "How's it going? I'd like to finally meet him." The long forgotten wound was ripping open further. "Is he here?"

"No ... Davids is at home. He dislikes travel."

"Then why are you..." The captain broke off as he caught sight of the time. "I've got to get ready. Talk to me while I shave."

The woman followed him into the bathroom. "I'm on my way to Earth ... it's so exciting!"

He raised an eyebrow inquisitively as he lathered his face.

"Don't tell me you forgot," she protested. "I received my doctorate in Earth folklore. And to actually be able to go there for further research is the opportunity of a lifetime."

The captain picked up the old-fashioned razor he preferred and carefully drew it down the plane of his left cheek. "I've never understood why you find us humans so interesting." He rinsed the blade under the running water and turned so the light fell more directly where he next wished to cut. "Compared to Vulcans, for example..."

"They're no fun." The woman's face was alight as she began to expound upon her pet interest. "Humans are so unpredictable, independent, so emotional. From the Pyramids to the stars in 6,000 years without destroying yourselves. In comparison, even we are so boring, so static."

He started to reply, then winced instead as the razor sliced into the soft skin above his upper lip. "Damn," he muttered as the blood dripped steadily. "Never could carry on a conversation and shave at the same time." He wiped off the remaining lather and inspected the cut. "Guess I'll live."

The captain abandoned the bathroom and made his way to his suitcase. He dug through a jumble of clothes and drew out a dress uniform shirt that had seen better days. "Sorry I've got to run, Janly, but thanks for dropping by." He was obscurely pleased that he did not sound the least bit sarcastic.

She had followed him back into the bedroom and now stood there indecisively. "How about one quick drink ... for old time sake?"

"Okay." He shouldered his way into the shirt. "But I've got to get going."

She unstopped the bottle and poured two tiny glassfuls. "Here..." But before he could drink, she stropped him with a motion. "First, a toast... such a unique custom. To the best Captain the Fleet!"

He sipped the wine cautiously. Tiny lights seemed to glimmer in its depths and it was a warm/sweet as he had remembered -- honeyed fire. "To the loveliest anthropologist in creation."

She smiled and they drank again.

He suddenly noticed that she was standing very near, staring at his face with tear-brimmed eyes. On impulse he set down his glass and drew her into his arms. She came willingly.

He had forgotten over the years how short she was; he had to bend low to reach her mouth. The top of her sleek head reached only to the middle of his chest. Heart-high.

Janly was as eager as he for the kiss. His mouth moved on hers in a way he had caught himself dreaming about over the years.

Finally, he drew back in some surprise. In his experience, that was not the way happily married women kissed men other than their husbands. But before he could make any comment, he realized her face was smeared with blood. He drew back in instinctive distaste.

"What's wrong?" Her eyes were now huge, glowing topazes.

"Your mouth..." He gestured as she walked over to the mirror. "That cut of mine must have opened." A most unromantic topic for discussion, he thought.

She looked at herself with interest and made a face at her reflection. "Yes, I look like a vampire." She ran some water and wiped away the smear. "Now there's one of your race's more outlandish fables. The 'undead' who come in the night and drink blood like wine. I've never understood the basic significance of that myth." Before the captain could comment, she walked over to the open window. "Now some are so simple ... only wish-fulfillment or a search for a hero who can do the things ordinary men cannot." The sight of the half-hidden towers across the valley caught her eye. "You people had enchanted places even before you left the home planet. Like the one where you never grow old and the one with the knights ... Camelot. I'm sure I shall enjoy my trip."

"Why are you going alone? Why isn't your precious husband with you?" The captain was finding her blithe change of subject annoying.

Janly's light blue skin grew a shade more pale. "If you must know," she paused as if gathering her courage. "We have decided to separate ... but only temporarily. I was falling so far behind in my work."

"And he," the man guessed in a flash of intuition, "has found some other lovely creature to fawn over him and worship at his shrine. Poor Janly... her great passion, all for nothing."

She had picked up her drink and gulped it down. Now she looked as if she would like to throw the empty glass at his head. "It's not for nothing. He will come to his senses."

"But it will never be the same." He still had not decided if he were going to allow himself to gloat. "What's the matter? Weren't you useful to him in his great art?"

"You don't love someone because he is useful," she snapped, setting down the glass with a bang. "You love him because," her voice trailed off as she thought for a moment. "Because of the way he makes you feel." She ran a seven-fingered hand through her dark blue hair in distraction. "I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't have come. But there was a stop here, and when I heard about you..."

"You wanted to see if things had changed with me. I'm pretty much the same ... now that I'm over you," he finished with a slightly malicious grin. "I'll smile again, but I'll never," he was suddenly deadly serious, "I'll never be young again."

She looked at him with something dangerously akin to pity. "Poor man ... and all you have to love now is your ship ... who can never love you back. But then I've heard that humans prefer their love to be unrequited."

"At least she won't grow tired of me," he reminded the woman. "She will never be unfaithful, never be untrue."

This time Janly turned a deep shade of anger as his taunt struck home. "How well you put that. Now I think we're even."

"Yes." He sat down on a chair near the window, absently watching a tattered moth making desperate love to the light, its gold/gauze wings in shreds. "We're even and that's the saddest thing of all."

Janly started to speak then thought better of it. Their eyes met across the room. Between them memory was strong as love had been and they understood each other more at this moment than they ever had.

Without a word she turned. He sat and looked at the floor until he heard the door close behind her ... no time or a lifetime later.

Instead of hurt, all he felt was an immense weariness. With a little luck he would never see her again. He rose to his feet shakily, the action of an old man. He turned to close the window and the fantastic shapes of the buildings now glowing in the light of the rising moon caught his eye.

Camelot ... of all things. He had always wanted to be Arthur, now he merely pitied him. And not to understand vampires! It isn't the blood, he thought in mild contempt. It is the soul the vampire takes ... and after the victim is drained dry, peaceful death is still denied him.

The captain poured another glass of wine and sipped it carefully. No use pining over what couldn't be. His life was fine as it was. He liked the solid reality of it. All dreams could do was fade.

The room was very quiet and the wine left in the bottle twinkled up at him disconsolately. Damn her for showing up. Damn her for her style, her elegance; for threatening to hurt me. Damn her for not loving me.

He sipped his drink again and watched the full moon rise. It was as beautiful, as alluring, as cold and sterile as his life -- and blank as Mordred's shield.

* * *

The onlookers broke off contact. The younger one seemed appalled. //THAT was one of the high points of his life?//

//So it appears. At least that is the way he chooses to remember it. He received many honors in his life, but not much love...//

//That word again. Humans are beyond rational understanding.//

The figures stood in the dimly lit cavern, each lost in private thought. Then the younger resumed its complaints. //Remember it was your idea to have him here. The Magistrate is not pleased. All we have seen is one incomprehensible fantasy after another. What is a Pyramid or a Camelot? Where is the adventure he lived?//

The other figure mentally shrugged. //Locked up behind that wall of ruined flesh. His will is unbreakable. I have tried, I tell you. We cannot force him. If we attempt pain ... in his condition he will die.//

The figures, in a slow and stately procession, glided over to where the still figure of the human was huddled.

//We had such hopes. This is such a disappointment.//

//At that you have been lucky. When he can find no dream to hide in, he radiates pure emotion. No words, pure emotion and it is rarely pleasant.//

//That still might be better than a horse ride or grief over a woman who loves someone else. I would be willing to settle for just knowing what a vampire was.//

//Enough for today. Let us return to the others. He will now sleep.//

The large-headed creatures dimmed the lights even further and had taken a few steps when a mental shout clamored through the cavern. //Wait!//

The two turned in surprised silence.

//Pyramid!// The thought was accompanied by a visualization of Earth so perfect and clear it seemed to the creatures that it took shape before them in mid-air. Earth, as the planet might look on a viewscreen of a starship, spinning serenely on her axis at the bottom of a gravity well. Blue and beautiful beyond belief, wearing her wispy halo of atmosphere. Lovely as a lost dream.

Then the scene changed and a towering shape took form ... one of those that still stood along the Nile even after all the centuries. It glimmered in the pure sunlight under a sky of brilliant, aching blue.

The creatures, mystified, recognized the geometric shape but still had no idea of its purpose.

The human's mind led them within the structure; inside to a burial chamber remembered from long-ago school days. The creatures looked with interest at the painted figures of stylized men and animals that marched along the walls of what they now could see was a tomb, hidden deep among the crushing rocks.

The Keeper thought his understanding back at the human. //Clear.//

//Wait. Now a vampire.//

While the two watched, the scene changed yet again to show the coffin. Slowly the lid lifted and its inhabitant sat up ... looking around in curiosity that slowly turned to dawning horror.

He stepped out and looked at himself as if inspecting his body for damage. He was the captain from the previous dream.

Slowly, then frantically, he began pacing the small room, all the while disregarding a thousand kings' ransoms in gold as he stumbled over them searching for a door.

No way out! He screamed in rising panic and started pounding on the wall for help until his hands were bloody. All the time there was a sense of someone watching just beyond the wall, watching and enjoying his terror. Silently drinking it in like wine.

Exhausted, he finally slumped to the floor, nursing his shredded hands, rocking in despair. An inscription over one picture of Osiris, the risen god, brought the true measure of his horror home. Even though it was in hieroglyphics, he could decipher it all too clearly.

"You live again

"You live forever

"Here you are young

"Once more for ever."

Forever. In his mind the word held all the bitterness of eternity.

The scene abruptly broke off as a surge of pure hatred against the universe, the unseen watchers and Fate flooded the human's mind, blocking out all else.

The younger watcher, aghast, stepped back instinctively. //Horrible! Does he do that often?//

//More since the female died.//

//Did he care for her deeply?//

//No, not much at all. She was a very boring person, even for a human. But she was company.//

//This is so unfair. We did not force him to come here. It was his choice.//

//Perhaps he did not truly realize...// The Keeper sighed. //He was so damaged he HAD no other choice. A healthy one now ... like that other captain. Now there is a personality for you.//

//And he hates illusion even more strongly than this one.//

//While he is young and whole, perhaps. It might be different if he were old or crippled. He might take more readily to our demands than this one.//

//But we cannot count on it.//

//No, but word of us may leak out to other humans. There are those, I believe, who have more affinity for our skills than the ones we have met.//

The Keeper mused on the idea of a colony of illusion-fed humans and something old, cold and evil gleamed in the depths of his mind. //We may yet have a chance.//

//We shall see. But what are we going to do about this one?//

//Leave him to me. He may yet resign himself to us. Or he may die...//

//Of what? We can support his life processes far better...//

//He is filled with hate and sorrow.//

//I fail to see...//

//There are some sorrows that kill.//

The other drew himself up to his not overpowering height. //You know humans better than I, but I can see no profit in aiding one who hates us.//

//You are a fool,// the Keeper noted without rancor as they stood looking at the shriveled husk of what had once been Christopher Pike. //It isn't us he hates so much as himself. For letting this happen to him, finding himself denied a clean death.//

//But humans are terrified of death. They fight it off. Even though it would have been kinder of them to let him die than keep him alive in the prison of his own body.//

//But he was in the power of those who hold on to any shred of life even when it is the ultimate cruelty.// A trace of something like respect flickered through the Keeper's mind. //Not all humans are so wise as this one. He has found that there can be no "happily ever after" for himself. It is more fitting and braver to die when the time is right. And at that time ... when the illusion he shows me is his own death, I shall give him the reality.//

Pike's tired blue eyes gazed for a moment at the Talosians' faces. They turned and left the menagerie area in the soundless elevator.

//We must find new specimens,//the younger insisted.

//We can but try.//

//Tell me. Why do humans hang on to life even when it is a hell to them?//

//Because they are a very young race.//

The other thought incomprehension at him.

//They are young,// the Keeper insisted. //They clutch at life and scorn death because,// he explained patiently, //they still think there is a difference.//