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Jim and Captain Picard focused their minds on the task ahead. Still on horseback, they arrived at Veridian III ahead of the Nexus. Under a torrid blue sky, they dismounted and quietly climbed a bleak, rugged hill toward a network of metal platforms. Soran was busy on one of them when Jim stepped onto the grating.

The white-haired scientist whirled to confront his unexpected visitor. "Just who the hell are you?"

Right on cue, Picard approached Soran from behind and said, "He's James T. Kirk. Don't you read history?"

Though they rushed him from both sides, Soran nimbly bolted from the platform and ran away.

Picard said, "I have to get to the launcher. The ribbon will be here in a minute."

His heart pumping fast, Jim nodded. "I'll take care of Soran."

But the chase was not long underway when the scientist leaped into view and ambushed him. Bringing a weapon to bear on Jim's face, Soran said, "Actually, I am acquainted with history and if I'm not mistaken, you belong in the Nexus. But you're not going to make it back."

This is it, Jim thought. The end.

Suddenly Picard jumped Soran from the rear, but was quickly knocked down an embankment. Jim took up the fight, struck the weapon from Soran's hand, and began to exchange blows. Soran lost his footing and fell down the hillside, where he dangled from a loose cable. Despite his precarious situation, he managed to bring out a remote control and cloak the launcher as Jim and Picard hurried toward it. Then the controller slipped from the scientist's grip and landed on a lower catwalk.

"We need that controller," Picard said.

Jim sensed the Nexus approaching them, and glanced up. He stood mesmerized by the swirling ribbon of energy, overwhelmed with longing for that seemingly perfect world.  

Picard's commanding voice drew him back. "Where's Soran?"

The scientist had disappeared. As Picard went after him, Jim made it over to the catwalk. He was partway across when a shot streaked from Soran's weapon, blasting the platform in two. The walkway fell out from under his feet. He slid down the grate, scrabbling for a handhold and barely finding one in time. He was not as young or strong as the Nexus illusions had made him seem, but bit by bit he muscled his way upward. Picard arrived on the upper edge. Stretching flat, the captain braced himself and scooted closer, one arm outstretched. Silently they reached toward one another until their hands met. As Picard hoisted him, Jim found a footing in the grate and climbed to safety. There was no chance to catch his breath. The cloaked launcher was set to fire into the system's star.

"We're running out of time," Picard said and pointed back toward the broken catwalk. "Look-there's the remote!"

Jim saw the controller lodged on the far side of the ruined walkway. The two segments slanted precariously, with a yawning gap between them. Twice, Picard had wasted precious time helping him. Now Jim said, "I'll get it. You go for the launcher."

Picard didn't move. "You'll never make it yourself. We have to work together."

"We are working together," Jim said. "Trust me." He headed for the catwalk and didn't look back.

Gingerly he stepped onto the steep grating. It swayed so wildly that he fell. It took a moment to regain his footing, and then he edged toward the gap. From there, it looked like the Grand Canyon.

Jim fought down a surge of fear. He remembered the raw exhilaration of jumping his horse. His muscles tensed in preparation as under his breath he said, "One, two..."

On the count of three, he leaped and caught a twisted rail with one hand. His body slammed into the far grating. The remote popped loose and dropped into the outstretched fingers of his free hand. Holding tight to the rail, he found the proper button, aimed it at the cloaked launcher, and pushed. Up on the hill, the complex decloaked. Jim savored his victory as he found a second secure handhold. Now if he could just hang on and...

The catwalk lurched. Accompanied by an ominous wrench of stressed metal, it began to sway wildly. Then as Jim clung to the rails, the entire section broke free and hurtled down the hillside.

The fall did not hurt much. With a shock too deep for pain, he landed beneath the tangled metalwork. An explosion shook the ground and showered dirt over him. High overhead, the Nexus swirled harmlessly through the sky and was gone.

Success.

Time to rest now, time to think. Jim knew he would get out of this fix somehow; he always had found some way to cheat death. Picard would surely come. Then Jim would go home and see if Tru had it in her heart to forgive him.

For a time he hovered just below the level of full consciousness. Then a sound of scraping metal roused him, and Picard's concerned face appeared above the tangle.

"We did it," Jim said, "didn't we? We made a difference."

"Oh yes," Picard answered. "We made a difference. Thank-you."

Jim tried to smile. "It was the least I could do for the captain of the Enterprise. It was...fun."

He tasted blood. He could not feel his legs or even his arms; he could not seem to feel anything but a creeping chill overtaking him. It was almost as if he were already...

With a sudden sense of urgency he said, "Tell my daughter...tell Tru that I'm...I'm sorry."

"I will," Picard promised.

And drawing one final breath, Jim realized that this time he had not cheated death, after all. Yet now, as never before, he understood that death was only a passage to the greatest of adventures. From beyond the veil, he felt an unseen presence beckoning to him, and sighed, "Oh my..."

***

Jean-Luc had scarcely placed the final stone on Captain Kirk's makeshift grave when the shuttlecraft arrived. A shock awaited him. All that remained of the Enterprise was the mangled saucer section. Under Will Riker's command, it had plowed into Veridian III after sustaining damage from a Klingon attack.

Jean-Luc was now a captain without a ship. Within the week, his marooned crew was rescued and on their way back to Earth where they would undergo debriefing and await their new assignments. It was unlikely that they would serve together any time soon, and the realization struck hard. Over the years, this crew had become his family.

When they reached Spacedock, he personally supervised the transfer of Kirk's body from the ship. News of Kirk's reappearance and subsequent death had reached the press, and he received the solemn, respectful welcome of a fallen hero.

Jean-Luc had other dead to honor, but that would have to wait until he fulfilled his obligation to the legendary figure. First, he transported to a remote community in California, named Weaverville. Renting a skimmer, he glided over magnificent woodlands, meadows, and creeks. He was in no particular hurry, but all too soon he arrived at the secluded Dreamcatcher Boy's Ranch and parked in the area reserved for visitors. Stepping out of the skimmer, he breathed deeply of the mountain air as he took in the sprawling residence, the great red barn, the handsome horses at pasture. All was quiet.

Near the main entrance, a slender man sat enjoying the sunny day. His brown face was wrinkled and weathered. A pair of gray braids hung halfway down his chest.

Approaching the man, Jean-Luc introduced himself and said, "I'm looking for Elena True Redfern. Her maiden name was Kirk. Do you know her?"

The dark eyes took stock of him. "She's my wife."

"Mr. Redfern, I have news for her," Jean-Luc said.

"She has heard about her father."

"I was with him when he died. He left her a message."

The man's expression remained stony. "Regrets or recriminations? Though he was once my legal guardian, he didn't approve of my marriage to his daughter. He used it as an excuse to leave."

A nearby door burst open, saving Jean-Luc from any need to comment. Out spilled half a dozen rambunctious boys accompanied by a man who so resembled a middle-aged Spock that Jean-Luc gaped at him. Recovering his composure, he said, "You must be Spock's younger son, James-the one named after Captain Kirk."

"That's right," James replied. "And you're Captain Picard of the Enterprise."

"The late Enterprise," Jean-Luc said with wry humor. "Sir, I know your father."

The Spock-like face relaxed into a smile. "Yes, he gets around pretty well for an old man, doesn't he?" James nodded toward the chair. "You've met my partner, Duncan? Around here, we call him Lame Wolf."

"He's a Shoshone Indian," volunteered a boy.

As the children crowded around Jean-Luc, admiring his Starfleet uniform, he could almost hear distant voices calling to him.  Father...Papá...

Then one fair-haired lad broke the spell by exclaiming, "You're the one who wrecked the Enterprise!"

James gently reproached the boy, and after sending the group off to their recess, invited Jean-Luc inside. They passed through a spacious foyer. Through a doorway Jean-Luc glimpsed dining tables set in preparation for the midday meal.

"Can you stay and eat with us?" Spock's son asked graciously.

Jean-Luc declined the invitation and explained that his sister-in-law was awaiting him at the chateau. "But first, if I might pay Tru Redfern a brief visit..."

James led him to a door and rapped on it. From inside, a faint voice spoke. "Come in."

James opened the door and announced, "Tru, you have a visitor. It's Captain Jean-Luc Picard."

Jean-Luc entered alone. An elderly woman sat near a window, holding an antique book. At a glance, he recognized her artwork on the walls. Watercolors bloomed like lovely flowers amid the Native American décor.

"Captain," she said, eyeing him. "Please...have a seat."

He bowed slightly before sitting down. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Redfern. I had one of your original paintings aboard the Enterprise. ‘Apple Blossoms'."

"It was destroyed?"

"I'm afraid so. I was lucky to save my family album. It's singed, but not badly."

A painful silence settled between them. Tru clasped her hands tightly together, and her eyes welled with tears. "You found him. You brought my father home."

"Yes." Quietly Jean-Luc described his encounter with Kirk in the Nexus, and the events that led to Kirk's death. With an ache in his throat, he said, "At the very last...when he realized he wouldn't make it...he spoke these words. ‘Tell my daughter...tell Tru that I'm sorry'."

He saw her tears fall and discreetly looked aside. The pendulum of an antique clock ticked steadily.

"Thank-you," she said low.

Looking into her grateful eyes, he told her, "It was an honor to meet your father. I only wish...I could have brought him home alive."

***

That evening in France, Jean-Luc wept over the graves of his brother Robert and nephew René, who had been laid to rest in the chateau's private cemetery. Leaving the stars behind, he came indoors to share a drink of the family wine with his bereaved sister-in-law, Marie. They sat beside a cold, dark hearth in a wing of the house undamaged by the fire. Neither of them could have borne the sight of flames just then. He had brought his precious album, and as they paged through it together, a recently acquired picture fell out.

Marie picked it up. "That's Captain Kirk," she observed with some surprise. 

"Yes."

Her face livened with interest. "They say you met him. What was he like?"

Jean-Luc sighed. His own yearning for the simple Nexus joy had made him more understanding of Kirk. How could one help but admire the man? "He was bright...and brave...and very human."

"Like in the old stories."

"Yes," he said. And tucking Kirk's photo back into the album, he turned the page.

 

oooOOooo



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