ECHOES OF DESTINY

An Imaginary Tale
(Aren't they all?)

by
"Avid Fan"


PROLOGUE

James Kirk tapped another command into the deflector relay control centerís main keypad, entering the instructions with practiced ease despite the stress and chaos of the current situation. The arduous tasks he had levied upon himself all those years ago, the ones which had required him to know as much as he possibly could about the onboard systems of the ships he commanded, were once again coming to his rescue. Remembering the proper commands to reconfigure the main deflector dish was effortless. It was as though he had never left the center seat, had never retired, never left the ship he loved.

If the circumstances were not so dire, Kirk might even have smiled.

The Enterprise-B rocked again, absorbing yet another brutal assault from the mysterious energy phenomenon holding it in its grasp. Kirk reached out with his left hand to steady himself against the bulkhead, listening to the sounds of the ship straining against the onslaught of the ribbonís distortion wave. He knew that the hull would not be able to take much more of this punishment. The sooner he made the modifications to the relay controls, the better.

Almost there. The consoleís display monitor confirmed that the previous command string was correct. He had already pulled the systemís polarity regulator module and made the necessary adjustments. Now all that was needed was to enter one final sequence so that the deflector control systems would understand the new frequency the module would emit and re-insert the component.

"Bridge to Captain Kirk," he heard the voice of his longtime friend and chief engineer, Montgomery Scott, calling over the shipís intercom.

"Kirk here," he called out even as he continued to enter the last command string.

"I donít know how much longer I can hold her together," the engineer warned. Kirk could hear the concern in Scottís voice. The force of the energy ribbon was taxing even this new Enterpriseís state-of-the-art space frame and structural integrity systems. Every second counted now.

What if the plan failed? Scotty had devised the daring scheme to fire the resonance burst from the main deflector only after several courses of action had been considered and discarded. The Enterprise-B, barely out of spacedock, had left Earth with several onboard systems in need of installation. Many of those systems would have been handy here, Kirk mused, but there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on that now.

I can kick all the Starfleet brass I want later, after we get out of this.

Tapping the last command into the keypad, Kirk reached for the regulator module on the deck to his left. It snapped into place, the system activating the instant the connection was complete. Indicator lights flashed across the console and a new surge of power coursed through the room.

"Thatís it!" Kirk shouted toward the intercom, victory lifting his voice even though he knew they were still in danger. "Letís go!"

It was apparent that the Enterprise-Bís new commander, John Harriman, had been poised for that report, as he wasted no time putting Scottyís hastily-concocted plan into action. "Activate main deflectors!" Kirk heard the young captain say.

Scotty must have had his finger hovering over the button, for the next instant Kirk felt a new vibration in the bulkheads and in the deck plating beneath his feet as the deflector was engaged. The console before him lit up in response to the new drain on the shipís systems, drawing power from all over the massive vessel as the resonance burst was released.

Was it his imagination, or could he already feel the ship moving?

"Weíre breakiní free," Scotty said, confirming his suspicions, and now Kirk did smile. Once again, the engineer had provided a miracle to save the day, to say nothing of the Enterprise and those aboard her.

Another shock wave struck the ship, the ribbon lashing out one last time as its prey fled to safety. The deck pitched beneath Kirkís feet and threw him off-balance. He fell to his knees and lunged for something to hold onto, his hand closing around the rung of a utility ladder just as a deafening crescendo enveloped the deflector control room. His ears rang with the cacophony of tortured metal rending and tearing as a monstrous hole appeared in the wall directly in front of him.

There was only an instant to comprehend the sight of tritanium hull plates twisting and parting to reveal the void of space that lay beyond, and then Kirk felt the pull of vacuum as the atmosphere was sucked out of the room. He tried to tighten his grip on the ladder but the effort was futile. The rung slipped from beneath his fingers as the inexorable pull of explosive decompression snatched him.

He flailed his arms, reaching for anything to halt his motion but found only emptiness, the walls of the deflector control room rushing past him before he saw nothing but stars. Tumbling in free fall as he was pulled away from the ship, he caught sight of the Enterprise.

For an insane moment, Kirk found himself regarding the new shipís design, which was of course different from those vessels that had previously carried her name. She was beautiful in her own way, of course, even while still carrying the echoes of her predecessors.

Why arenít I dead?

Seconds were passing, far too many for an unprotected humanoid in the harsh environment of space. Rather than the stark, unremitting cold that should have gripped him the instant he emerged from the ship, Kirk instead felt a tingling sensation playing over his body. His vision was filled with blinding white light, his mind telling him that he, and the ship, must still be within the energy ribbonís influence. Had the resonance burst failed? Was the Enterprise still trapped?

The light pouring forth from the energy field intensified, along with the reverberating sensations washing over Kirk. It eclipsed the stars, the ribbon, the Enterprise, everything.

And then....


CHAPTER ONE

Atop the plateau that was the highest point of land for thirty kilometers in any direction, Spock stood motionless. He was alone in this barren wasteland, save for the lone tree protruding from the top of the rocky knoll. It offered only feeble shade as protection from the harsh Veridian sun, casting the thinnest of shadows over Spock and the pile of rocks at his feet.

He held his hands clasped before him as he would during meditation, his eyes closed as they had been for the past forty-three point seven minutes. Windblown sand peppered his lined and weathered face and littered his graying hair as well as the thick white robes he wore, but he ignored it. Instead he continued to listen, hearing only the hot wind blowing across the vast desert that dominated this, the planetís southernmost continent.

Did he truly expect to find that which he sought? Logic demanded that the very notion was ludicrous, that his journey here had been wasteful, and that his vigil would ultimately prove to be fruitless.

Any of which might be relevant if it was logic that motivated me to be here.

It was not until another thirty-six point four minutes had passed that Spock finally opened his eyes. The Veridian sun had moved closer to the horizon before him, signifying the end of another hot, dry day on this world. Looking upward, he knew that beyond the boundary of the planetís atmosphere, the U.S.S. Enterprise remained in orbit, its crew waiting for him to notify them that he was ready to leave.

At his request, neither Captain Jean-Luc Picard nor any of his crew had accompanied him to the surface. The captain had naturally objected, citing security concerns, but relented after offering only token resistance. With the exception of Spockís surviving shipmates from his own days in Starfleet, Picard more than anyone else identified with the reasons for the Vulcan wanting to come here alone, even if he did not fully understand them.

Others apparently approved of the captainís thinking, even if they shared his bewilderment and uncertainty. Starfleet had graciously accepted his request for transport to Veridian III from Starbase 212, the Federation installation closest to this region of space. That it had been Picard and the Enterprise assigned to the courier detail was fortunate happenstance, or was it something else? Fate, perhaps?

Illogical, he reminded himself, though he allowed the corners of his mouth to turn upward almost imperceptibly at the errant thought.

It was only a ghost of a smile, and it faded as quickly as it had come as Spock turned his gaze toward the ground and regarded the stones arrayed before him. The grave had remained undisturbed since being placed there nine years earlier. Only the faded gold Starfleet insignia, which he had cleaned of dirt upon his arrival, offered any clue as to what lay beneath the mound.

Spock had been in transit, deep within Romulan space, when word about James Kirkís remarkable return and subsequent death -- appearing here on Veridian III seventy-eight years after supposedly being killed during the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise-B -- reached him via encoded subspace message from Captain Picard. It was a scene that had played out in similar fashion decades earlier, with Spock en route to a diplomatic conference in Klingon territory when notification of the Enterprise-B mishap and his friendís loss had come. Events and circumstances had prevented him from visiting this, the grave of his friend, before now. As had happened all those years ago, he had grieved in private.

Since then, and though it too was illogical, Spock had harbored a pang of guilt over his inability to come sooner and pay his final respects. That, among other reasons, had brought him to this place today.

"I hope that you have found peace, James Kirk," he said aloud, though there was of course no one to hear him. "I have been..."

...and always will be, another voice seemed to continue for him, your friend.

Was it purely imagination?

In the time that had passed since Kirkís initial disappearance, Spock had at irregular intervals been surprised to hear the captainís voice calling to him. At first, he believed the odd occurrences to be merely the residual consequence of the several mind melds he and Kirk had shared. It seemed a rational explanation, and one Spock could attribute to other people with whom he had melded. Indeed, one of the more prominent voices that he still heard on occasion belonged to none other than Leonard McCoy. That was almost certainly a result of the fal-tor-pan ritual to which the good doctor had voluntarily subjected himself in order to return Spockís katra to his body following its regeneration while interred on the Genesis planet so long ago.

Naturally, Dr. McCoy would derive great amusement from the knowledge that his influence still weighed so heavily on Spockís thoughts even after so many years, which was primary reason the Vulcan had chosen never to tell him about the ritualís lingering effects.

Still, while McCoy and others with whom Spock had joined minds offered echoes of those experiences in his own thoughts, James Kirkís presence in his consciousness had always seemed different somehow. Much like the captain himself, his voice carried a power the others lacked, along with an insistency that even now steadfastly refused to be denied.

Spock!

The voice was clear, raw, and powerful, all but shattering his reverie. It was impossible for him to discern if the single word had been spoken audibly or was merely another vestige of his friend that remained lodged in the Vulcanís own mind. Despite himself, Spock turned from Kirkís grave and scanned the area around him, searching for the speaker. As before, only desolate, lifeless terrain surrounded him.

"Captain?" he called out, against all reason.

Only the wind answered him. He was alone here, of course. Surely, there could be no disputing that fact.

Can you help me, Spock?

It was Kirkís voice, though this time Spock was certain he heard the question only in his mind. It resonated in his consciousness, demanding to be heard, to be answered. Never before had Spock heard him so clearly.

"Curious," he said to no one. Was there something about this place which had borne witness to Kirkís death, some anomalous property that acted as a conduit for amplifying some persistent residual effect of a prior mind meld? Spock had never heard of such a phenomenon, but he had seen enough astounding things in the course of his lifetime that he knew better than to rule out anything that did not offer a cogent explanation.

Closing his eyes once more, Spock blocked out the wind and the sand, the heat and the fading light of the Veridian sun, concentrating instead only on whatever it was that called to him. At first there was only blackness as he pushed aside all other thoughts and visions, but after several seconds Spock became aware of an odd, vibrant light encroaching on the edges of his perception. It coalesced in his mindís eye, a writhing band of energy, streaming with strokes of blue and violet and amber as it moved toward him.

The ribbon.

Spock recognized it, of course. Logs and reports from two different vessels named Enterprise had described it and its destructive properties in great detail, after all. A conflux of temporal energies, the ribbon traveled this region of the galaxy in a largely elliptical course that caused it to retrace its trajectory once every 39.1 years. So far as public record was concerned, it was a naturally-occurring stellar phenomenon, also cited as the cause of James Kirkís death in the 23rd century.

Unofficially, and according to the still-classified report submitted by Captain Picard, the ribbon had in actuality been the vehicle for Kirkís bizarre reappearance here. The energy band was in fact a doorway to a region where the laws and properties of the normal space-time continuum did not apply. Trapped in that place from the moment the ribbon ensnared him in its grip as it struck the Enterprise-B, Kirk remained there, outside time, until he was found by Picard decades later. According to what was known about it, the ribbon would not return to this area of space for nearly thirty-one years. So why was Spock seeing the mysterious phenomenon now? Was there even more to it than what was already known? Did the Nexus harbor yet more secrets than had been previously revealed?

Was his vision in fact some clue as to what he should do next?

Feeling his human emotions beginning to stir in response to the highly illogical line of thinking his mind was only just beginning to assemble, he reached into the folds of his robe and tapped the Starfleet pendant he wore on his undershirt.

"Spock to Enterprise."

"Picard here," the voice of the shipís captain responded an instant later. "What can I do for you, Ambassador?"

*****

Seated behind his desk in his ready room aboard the Enterprise, Picard felt even his normally unflappable bearing being tested by his current conversation with Ambassador Spock. Not that he was upset or angry, of course, but rather due to the doubt that was continuing to grow with each passing moment.

"I understand your skepticism, Captain," the Vulcan said. "After all, I would imagine you do not normally receive requests to assist in the search for a dead man." Picard noted the hint of a smile teasing the corners of Spockís mouth as he spoke, a likely and yet still infrequent indulgence to his human heritage.

"Ambassador," Picard replied, "with all due respect, Captain Kirk died on Veridian III nine years ago. I was there, and I was the last person to be with him."

Spock seemed to consider that for several seconds before saying, "On several occasions following Captain Kirkís disappearance from the Enterprise-B, I have found myself hearing his voice. At first I dismissed these experiences as nothing more than an aftereffect of the several mind melds I performed with him."

"Iíve read of such incidents with various telepathic species," Picard replied, "but it seems to be a rare occurrence among Vulcans."

Nodding, Spock said, "From the studies that have been performed, the general belief is that it only happens in cases where one joins with the same person repeatedly, as well as between partners in intimate relationships or particularly close friendships."

He paused, as if weighing Picardís possible reaction to his next words, before his right eyebrow arched and the ambassadorís expression once again took on an air of restrained amusement. "For a time I considered it an emotional response, my way of expressing grief over Captain Kirkís death."

Picard leaned forward in his chair until his forearms rested atop his desk. "Somethingís made you decide that this is more than simple emotion or the remnants of a mind meld?"

"Indeed," the Vulcan replied as he rose from his own seat, keeping his hands clasped before him as he paced slowly around the perimeter of the ready room. "During my service with Captain Kirk, I joined with his mind on several occasions. Over time, both of us came to realize that a residual link remained even after the actual melding had ended. While I would hesitate to say that we were able to communicate through this...connection, there were times when I believed that one of us was able to implicitly understand that the other was in danger and in need of help."

Having encountered more than his share of unexplained phenomena in his travels across space both known and uncharted, Picard did not think Spockís claim to be outlandish or unrealistic. After all, he himself still retained traces of his own connection to the Borg collective from his time spent in their influence. It had last manifested itself during the Borgís most recent incursion into Federation space six years earlier, and Picard had even taken advantage of that tenuous bond to defeat a Borg vessel before it could reach Earth.

And if that wasnít an example of leaping from the frying pan into the fire, he mused, I donít know what is. Believing he understood what Spock was leading toward, Picard asked, "You believe that this link remained even after Kirkís disappearance from the Enterprise-B?"

The Vulcan nodded, stopping his circuit of the room and turning to face the captain. "In the years that followed, I continued to experience these same sensations. They were infrequent, yet they still carried the same intensity as before." As the ambassador spoke, Picard could see that his features had darkened with an almost haunted expression. "Nine years ago, I was struck by one such particularly powerful impression, which I eventually deduced to have occurred at the same moment that Captain Kirk was dying on Veridian III."

Even Picardís formidable self-control was struck by the Vulcanís words, and his jaw went slack as he comprehended the words. "You felt him die?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper. Spockís silence was a sufficient answer, as well as enough to cause the captain to slump back into his chair.

Though Picard had only known James Kirk for less than two hours, witnessing the legendary captainís passing had struck him with the same unforgiving force that had enveloped him when he had been powerless to prevent the death of his best friend, Jack Crusher, as well as when he had learned of the horrific deaths of his brother and nephew, who had perished in a fire at their home on Earth. Then there was the loss of Data, his friend and shipmate for fifteen years, who had sacrificed himself to save Picard and the Enterprise during their battle with Shinzon in Romulan space.

He had never stopped carrying the weight of those dreadful moments, and the captain now realized that, in his own way, Spock had shouldered a similar burden since that day on Veridian III.

Looking up at the ambassador again, Picard saw that the Vulcan was studying him intently, perhaps understanding at least a portion of the thoughts now clouding his mind. After a moment, Spock nodded.

"Yes, Captain," he said, "I saw him die, and it made me realize that what I had been experiencing in the years since the Enterprise-B incident was in fact a manifestation of the link we have shared these many years."

Moving back across the ready room and retaking his seat before the captainís desk, Spock locked eyes with Picard. "I do not discount that events transpired exactly as you reported them, Captain. Indeed, what remains of Captain Kirkís body is exactly where you left it. However, I am also unable to discount that I have continued to experience these same sensations in the time that has passed since he was placed there. Therefore, I am now forced to accept the possibility that, in some fashion, Captain Kirk is alive. Further, I submit that there is a way to retrieve him. The answer lies within the energy ribbon you encountered."

Tugging on the front of his black uniform jacket, Picard straightened in his chair. "The Nexus?" he asked, his brow furrowing in confusion as he shook his head. "I donít see how, Ambassador, given what Guinan told me about its properties."

As part of the detailed report he had submitted following the loss of the Enterprise-D at Veridian III, Picard had included his longtime friendís account of how she and other surviving members of her race had been caught in the grips of the Nexus while aboard the transport ship Lakul, fleeing from her home world nearly ninety years ago. When the Lakul fell into the energy ribbonís embrace, Guinan and her companions were trapped in a state of temporal flux, the beginnings of the transition from this reality into that of the Nexus. That process was interrupted by the transporters of the Enterprise-B as the shipís crew staged a daring rescue mission.

Forty-seven of the El-Aurian passengers had been saved by the bold action, but each of them had later reported a powerful desire to return to the energy ribbon and succumb to its influence once and for all. Picard had learned that this pull was in actuality caused by an "echo" of each El-Aurian that remained trapped inside the Nexus, created at the moment the refugees were pulled from its influence by the Enterprise-B transporters. Because of this, Guinan and her companions were in effect incomplete people, forever doomed to yearn for that part of themselves which had been lost inside the mysterious temporal anomaly.

Such compulsion had also crossed over into all-consuming obsession in the case of one El-Aurian, Tolian Soran, whose string of horrendous actions was the reason Picard had experienced the Nexus for himself, how he had met James Kirk, and why he and Spock were having this conversation.

"Unlike Guinan and the other El-Aurians," he continued, "Captain Kirk entered and exited the Nexus as a complete person. There was nothing left behind when he returned with me to Veridian III."

Regarding Picard with an odd expression that seemed to convey the Vulcan knew more than he was revealing just now, Spock asked, "Can you be sure? I know that I am not, and until I am, I must continue to seek answers."

Already knowing the answer to the question even as he spoke, Picard asked, "You intend to go after the ribbon?"

Spock nodded. "If there is even a possibility that Captain Kirk still lives within the Nexus, then I must attempt to retrieve him. He has done the same for me on those occasions where he found himself facing similar questions and obstacles. I can do less for him now."

Despite being delivered without a trace of emotion, there was no mistaking the intense loyalty and commitment that buoyed the Vulcanís words. Spockís devotion to his captain and his friend was unwavering, uncompromising, and undying, and Picard understood it completely. His own crew had risked their careers and their lives to save him on more than one occasion, after all.

"While I agree with you," the captain said, "I have to wonder what Vulcanís greatest scholars of logic might say to your reasoning."

Spock paused a moment before answering, appearing to give the question a great deal of deliberation before finally saying, "I have given that matter a great deal of thought, and I find myself able to reach only a single conclusion: Logic, as was often the case with regards to Captain Kirk, does not apply in this situation."

The answer evoked yet another warm smile from Picard. "More than a few of my professors at Starfleet Academy, much to their consternation, felt that a great many things did not apply to him. I remember being greatly amused at their warnings not to attempt following in his footsteps, though I canít say I recall ever thinking their advice in that area was worth heeding." He noted that Spock appeared pleased at that as the captain reached for his combadge. "Picard to Stellar Cartography."

"Stellar Cartography," answered a female voice, "Lieutenant Commander Basore here, sir."

Picard said, "Commander, at your earliest convenience, I need you to provide me with the latest position of the energy phenomenon we first encountered at Veridian III nine years ago, as well as its projected course over the next thirty days."

"Aye, sir," Basore replied. "We should be able to provide you with its current position and trajectory within the hour."

The captain nodded in satisfaction though the younger officer could not see it. "Excellent. Make it so, Commander."

As the connection was severed, Picard returned his attention to Spock. "Well, getting that information is the easy part, Ambassador. The harder question will be: How do you intend to go after the ribbon?" He knew that even if Starfleet or the Federation Council could be convinced to support the outlandish scheme Spock was proposing, would they offer any means of support? A ship would be required to pursue and intercept the bizarre energy phenomenon, and experience had shown that such actions were inherently hazardous to any vessel making the attempt.

Once again, a knowing expression graced Spockís features.

"I believe I know of at least one ship that should prove suitable to the task, Captain."


CHAPTER TWO

"Shuttlecraft Bascom, this is Dry Dock Control. We show you on final approach to Docking Berth 4, ETA 1525 hours. Welcome to Lunar Maintenance Facility Alpha."

Tapping the controls to complete the communication link, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok replied, "Acknowledged, Dry Dock Control. Thank you for your assistance."

Severing the link, Tuvok took a moment to study the sensor displays on the console before him. As usual, there was considerable ship traffic in the vicinity of Earthís moon, thanks in large part to its expansive network of orbital construction and maintenance berths. Active since the late twenty-second century, it was the largest facility of its kind in the Terran system apart from the Utopia Planitia shipyards over Mars. Several vessels that would go on to earn grand status in the annals of Starfleet history had begun their existence as ideas in the minds of engineers assigned to this base. A few of those ships were berthed here even now, undergoing various repairs and upgrades.

Then there were other vessels that, while perhaps not constructed at this facility, had nevertheless acquired their own storied reputations. One such vessel was Tuvokís own U.S.S. Voyager, docked here now while undergoing routine maintenance before heading out on its next assignment. Though commissioned for less than a decade, Voyager -- along with her crew, of course -- had already garnered an overwhelming list of accomplishments, thanks in large part to its seven-year sojourn across the Delta Quadrant after being drawn there by a mysterious alien entity.

And yet, even with that record to its credit, Tuvok conceded that Voyager was not the most celebrated starship currently interred here. That honor belonged to another vessel, the one to which he was presently ferrying his equally renowned passenger.

Behind him in the rear of the shuttleís cockpit, he heard Spock talking in muted tones to the person responsible for Tuvokís being here in the first place.

"Iíve just received word that final preparations are underway, Ambassador," Tuvok heard Janeway say. "Unless something unexpected occurs, you should depart on schedule. Of course, given the history you and that ship share, I imagine youíve come to expect the unexpected."

"Indeed, Admiral," Spock replied. "I am aware that mine was a most unusual request, and I appreciate the assistance you have provided in this matter. Rest assured it is a debt I am sworn to repay at my earliest opportunity."

Shortly after Voyagerís return from the Delta Quadrant, the shipís captain, Kathryn Janeway, had accepted a promotion to admiral and a posting at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. She now oversaw Starfleet operations in several sectors of Federation space, including a few sensitive areas near the Romulan Neutral Zone. Additionally, she had been given purview over a variety of special projects involving key Federation and Starfleet officials, including the current activities involving Spock.

"The pleasure is mine, sir," Janeway said, and Tuvok recognized the genuine pride in his former captainís voice. "Iím just happy that all of the pieces fell into place as easily as they did. The rest is up to you of course. Good luck."

The communications link severed a moment later, and Tuvok realized that, other than a few minutes when Janeway had contacted him with the details of his current assignment, there had been only sporadic opportunities to speak with his friend and former captain in the time that had passed since their return to Federation space. There were a good many factors contributing to that, of course, not the least of which was the operational tempo both Voyager and Admiral Janeway had been maintaining in recent months. Logically, there was no reason for him to even give the matter a second thought, so why was he dwelling on it?

Before he could consider it any further, his reverie was broken by the sound of Spock speaking to him.

"Commander," the ambassador said, "I have not yet thanked you for taking the time to escort me to my destination."

Swiveling away from the cockpitís forward console, Tuvok replied, "It is my privilege to do so, Ambassador." He noted that the elder Vulcan was sitting in one of two padded seats, regarding him over the top of his clasped hands. Tuvok recognized the manner in which Spock held his fingers before him as one used by students of Kolinahr during their training. Given that the ambassador, like Tuvok himself, had never successfully completed the demanding series of rituals designed to purge all remaining emotions and advance the pursuit of total logic, the commander found it odd that Spock would still employ any of its exercises.

Interesting.

"I understand that Captain Chakotay granted shore leave to the majority of your crew while your shipís maintenance cycle finishes," Spock said. "Given the Voyagerís recent string of assignments, it is unlikely that you are able to return to Vulcan except on infrequent occasions."

It was true. After returning from the Delta Quadrant, Tuvok had spent several weeks on Vulcan, beginning the process of catching up on seven years in the lives of his wife and four children. Duty called again in short order, however, and Tuvok soon found himself back aboard Voyager, serving as its first officer under the command of newly-promoted Captain Chakotay. Soon, the ship and her replenished crew found themselves undertaking an operational tempo they had not seen since beginning their far flung journey on the far side of the galaxy.

"As my visit to Vulcan coincided with yours," Tuvok replied, "I was the logical candidate to accompany you on your return trip to Earth." The orders to provide an escort for the ambassador had come from Starfleet Command and were delivered by Admiral Janeway herself, and while she had expressed regret at asking Tuvok to end his shore leave early in order to carry out the assignment, the commander had not even considered declining her request. It was a rare opportunity to meet with one of Vulcanís most respected and distinguished citizens, after all. "In addition, my family is well aware of my obligations to Starfleet, and that I must frequently set aside personal desires in order to carry out my duty."

To Tuvokís surprise, Spock actually appeared to smile as he regarded him from where he sat at the rear of the cockpit. "If I may be so bold, Commander," the ambassador said, "I would offer you a small bit of advice. Duty to Starfleet is necessary and commendable, of course. However, one must also remember not to let that become so absolute that it does not allow for duty to oneís self, which includes obligations to family and friends. It is a lesson that I learned only after a great deal of time and difficulty."

The younger Vulcan said nothing for several moments, instead taking the opportunity to contemplate the "advice" he had been given. It was timely and certainly not without merit, he decided, particularly in light of the fact that Tuvok had, in effect, been given a second chance with his own family by virtue of Voyagerís deliverance from its seven-year odyssey in the Delta Quadrant.

Still, how much time had he truly spent with TíPel and the children, even in the past year? Aside from the extended leave in the wake of Voyagerís return, the opportunities had been sporadic to be sure. It was the same when it came to maintaining contact with friends such as Admiral Janeway. Could it be that a gulf was forming, perhaps one that had not even existed during his and his shipmatesí exile?

That is illogical.

He was aware of the rift that had existed between Spock and his late father, an estrangement that had in various forms stretched back more than a century. Tuvok also knew that the ambassador had also experienced several remarkable events during his life -- his mind melding with the machine entity known as VíGer and his own death and resurrection to name but two. Now that he had finally had the opportunity to sit and talk with Spock for himself, it seemed obvious to Tuvok that these incidents, along with a great many others, had all conspired to reshape Spockís thinking so that logic and knowledge now worked in harmony with his human characteristics to give him a perspective that other Vulcans lacked, Tuvok himself included.

Fascinating, he admitted silently. This entire line of thought was something he would most definitely have to revisit when the opportunity presented itself.

Additionally, when viewed in this new light, the reasons for Spockís presence here made perfect sense. The ambassador had recently visited Veridian III, the final resting place of his friend and former commander, James Kirk. Though the matter itself had been classified, Tuvokís security clearance was high enough that he had been able to read Captain Picardís report of his encounter with Kirk.

And now Spock had received special permission from Starfleet Command to make use of a Starfleet vessel in order to carry out a mission that, while unofficial by all accounts, was apparently of great importance to him. Then there was the ship which had been offered for this purpose, along with certain members of Starfleet who had volunteered to assist him. Finally, there was the flight plan for the ship, filed by Spock himself, which when compared to stellar maps of the Alpha Quadrant showed an intercept course of the very energy field which was known to have provided access to the temporal phenomenon that had housed Kirk for almost eight decades.

Considering all of these factors, there was only one logical deduction to be made, as unusual and illogical as the focus of the deduction itself might be.

"Ambassador," Tuvok finally said, "am I correct in assuming that you have decided to embark on a mission to somehow rescue Captain Kirk?"

As he expected, Spock did not even hesitate before offering his simple reply. "Yes."

Tuvok had read Captain Picardís report describing Kirkís remarkable appearance on Veridian III and his subsequent death, as well as the details surrounding the energy ribbon and its unusual space-time qualities. According to the statements provided by a member of the civilian contingent that had served aboard the Enterprise-D -- an El-Aurian woman who had encountered the ribbon previously -- the energy field apparently offered the opportunity to interact at will with anyone else who had been subjected to its effects in any time period. Did that extend to people who were no longer alive?

"If this energy ribbon is a temporal phenomenon," Tuvok said, "then you believe it can somehow afford you access to him?"

Spock nodded. "That is correct."

"I must admit that it is an intriguing notion." There was very little in the way of hard information to support the hypothesis, save for the personal accounts of the woman from Picardís crew. Still, it was an idea that Spock seemed bent on pursuing, and in doing so had garnered support and assistance from some of the most prominent members of Starfleet and the Federation leadership.

During his assignment aboard the U.S.S. Excelsior after his graduation from Starfleet Academy almost ninety years ago, Tuvok had seen firsthand the level of dedication that James Kirk had engendered in members of his crew. Hikaru Sulu, Tuvokís commanding officer at the time, had defied regulations and even lied to his superiors in order to render aid to his former captain. Prior to that incident, when Tuvok was just beginning his studies as a cadet, Kirk and his entire senior staff had forsaken their careers in a venture that had resulted in Spockís incredible resurrection.

While Tuvok believed that the relationship he shared with his Voyager shipmates was strong, there could be no question that it did not exist on the same level as the bond between Kirk and his officers, which had taken decades to evolve and had extended far beyond the lifetimes of many of the Enterprise crew. However, such a vibrant connection was indeed well worth the effort to achieve, especially when it involved following such a sterling example as that embodied by the man sitting with him now.

Behind him, the shuttlecraftís cockpit console began emitting a beeping alert that Tuvok knew meant the Bascom was approaching its final destination. Turning his seat so that he faced the console once more, he verified the shuttleís course and speed one final time. He also noted that short range sensors were tracking the approach of another small vessel, a travel pod of the type routinely used at Starfleet installations throughout the Federation. The pod was on a course that would bring it to the same location to which he and Spock were currently traveling.

Then another indicator flashed on the control console. "We have received authorization to dock, Ambassador," he called over his shoulder.

"Excellent," Spock replied as Tuvok heard movement behind him, and a moment later the elder Vulcan was settling into the cockpitís other forward seat to his right. Regarding the ambassador, Tuvok noted the look of recognition -- and even pride, perhaps -- on his face as the Bascom banked to starboard, bringing into view an orbital dry dock and the starship it cradled.

*****

Jean-Luc Picard touched a control on the cockpitís compact navigation console, firing the travel podís maneuvering thrusters and turning the small vessel until the dry dock lay directly ahead of them, giving him his first unobstructed view of the ship ensconced there. The vessel was bathed in the brilliant illumination offered by the orbital platformís array of lighting, vibrantly tracing the seams of its hull plating and the warm hues of the paint highlighting the shipís name and registry number.

U.S.S. Enterprise. NCC-1701-A.

"There she is," he said, more to himself than to the podís other passenger, realizing after a moment that he was staring unabashedly at the ship they were approaching. It was one thing to see the ship as depicted in pictures or computer simulations, or even to walk the decks of its sister vessel, the U.S.S. Yorktown, interred at the Starfleet Museum annex at Starbase 178. However, all of that paled in comparison to the vision he now beheld.

Seated to his left, Captain Montgomery Scott had heard his soft spoken comment, and he turned in his seat as he offered a paternal smile to Picard. "Itís good to see the old girl again, Captain. I canít thank ye enough for bringing me out here." Nodding, Picard replied, "Itís my pleasure, Mr. Scott." He indicated the Enterprise with a nod of his head as they began to pass down the length of the vesselís port side. "Sheís still a magnificent ship, even after all these years."

Scottís smile widened in reaction to the compliment, an obvious sign that he was indeed relishing every moment of this occasion. "Aye, sheís a beauty for certain. Ye have no idea how thrilled I am to hear that sheís getting a chance to be useful again."

Picard said nothing, allowing the renowned engineer to operate under that assumption for a while longer, as he had been asked to do by Ambassador Spock, who had explained that he had wanted to "catch Mr. Scott unaware when I reveal my intentions to him." It was an unusual request from a Vulcan, but Picard believed he now understood just how far Spock had allowed his human heritage to influence his thinking in his later years.

So far as Scott knew, the Enterprise was being readied for a return to active service, which until just a few weeks ago had been the truth. In the wake of the Dominion War, Starfleet had found itself with too much space to defend and not enough vessels with which to accomplish that mission. In addition to the concerted ongoing refit and repair efforts for those ships that had survived the war, construction was also underway on replacements for those that had been lost. It was a time-consuming proposition, however, and with many in Starfleet and the Federation still on edge following the near defeat at the hands of the Dominion, all possible avenues were being pursued in order to return the fleet to its former strength as quickly as possible. This included inspecting outdated, even obsolete vessels which had been relegated to obscurity.

Or history, in the case of the Enterprise-A.

While the starship would still fulfill that goal, Ambassador Spockís unusual request for the use of a ship, along with the assistance of certain individuals to accompany him, had given Picard an idea which he had taken directly to the Chief of Starfleet Operations herself. Since the Enterprise would require a shakedown cruise following her maintenance and upgrade cycle, why not assign it to Spock for the duration of that exercise?

Such a decision, one which Starfleet Command had made with no hesitation whatsoever, would satisfy both the requirements to ensure the ship was ready to return to service while at the same time repaying just one of the uncounted debts Starfleet and, indeed, the entire Federation, owed the Vulcan.

"Once her upgrades are complete, sheíll be as good as new," Picard said as the travel pod drifted over the top of the primary hull, the raised dome containing the shipís bridge now directly ahead of them. "However, sheís one of the oldest vessels to be selected for reactivation, and there are quite a number of people who believe she may well be unsuited for the task. Additionally, there are very few engineers in Starfleet familiar with her design, and absolutely none possessing your unique qualifications. Given the time constraints the shipyard is working under, youíre needed immediately to oversee the rest of her refit."

Shaking his head, Scotty replied, "I should have known." He smacked the armrest of his chair with the flat of his hand. "Well, weíll just have to show the doubters what sheís got, wonít we?" Rather than being upset or offended by the notion that he had been called in to oversee repairs to a century-old vessel, Picard could tell that the engineer was instead embracing the opportunity to prove wrong any naysayers who dared to question the abilities of his beloved ship.

It was the same mindset that had driven Scott to succeed as he had acclimated himself to life in the 24th century. After his rescue from a derelict starship, where he had managed to survive by locking himself inside a continuously regenerating transporter beam for seventy-five years, Montgomery Scott had found himself to be a man out of time. There was a brief period where he felt as though his usefulness had ended, particularly now that he was nearly a century out of step with the rest of the galaxy. His bout with self-pity was fleeting, however, thanks in no small part to Picardís own chief engineer, Geordi La Forge, and in short order Scott had begun the process of adapting to his new reality.

His engineering skills, arguably unmatched a century ago, had proven to still be quite formidable now. Six months spent at Starfleet Command familiarizing himself with the latest concepts and advances in starship systems and design was all that was needed to return the engineer to his former stature, and his contributions to the development of Starfleetís newest generation of starship, the Sovereign-class vessels, had removed any questions or concerns that might have lingered in the minds of even the most ardent cynic.

"Itís a pity," Scott said after a moment, "that sheíll not be able to retain her name." Offering a nod to Picard, he added, "No disrespect intended to ye, Captain, but it just doesnít seem right, re-commissioning her. Though come to think of it, thatís how the bonnie lass got her name in first place." Picard saw a wistful expression wash over the other manís face, as if Scott were recalling a particularly poignant memory. Then he shrugged. "Funny what details your mind chooses to forget sometimes, isnít it?"

Perhaps it was because he had commanded vessels that were of the same lineage, in name if not form, that Picard felt he understood the engineerís feelings. Starfleet Command had decided that despite the illustrious history the Enterprise-A embodied, it would be impractical for more than one vessel to bear the same name. Therefore, following the shipís refit and subsequent shakedown cruise, which would of course come after it completed its special mission under the guidance of Ambassador Spock, it would be assigned a new name and registry number.

What exactly that name would be was still a matter of much debate in the hallowed halls of Starfleetís senior leadership. Picard believed that Starfleet should just leave well enough alone, and had said as much in a communiquť to the Admiralty when he had learned of the decision. To their credit, those overseeing the matter had at least told him they were considering that option, and would reach a decision in good time.

Hopefully while Iím still alive to see how it turns out.

The travel pod was making its final maneuvers now, aligning its rear airlock doors with one of the starshipís docking ports. As it did so, Picard and Scott were given one last sweeping view of the vessel before it passed from sight.

"It doesnít matter what name is painted on the hull, Mr. Scott," Picard said, turning to regard his companion. "That wonít erase the legacy this ship has earned, to say nothing of its crew." Smiling, he added, "This is your Enterprise."

Scott nodded in agreement as the pod slowed to a stop and the sound of docking clamps engaging reverberated through the tiny shipís hull. "Aye, Captain. She is indeed."


CHAPTER THREE

The turbolift doors opened, and for the first time in eighty-seven years, Spock stood on the bridge of the Enterprise.

"Captain on the bridge," he heard a female voice call out, and the group of officers working at various stations paused momentarily to acknowledge his arrival before returning to their duties.

Stepping out of the lift, he allowed the atmosphere of the Enterprise bridge to wash over him. The sounds emitted by the command centerís various consoles and computer stations were both familiar and comforting, an almost musical harmony that Spock had heard countless times over the decades.

"This is reminiscent of my tour of duty aboard the Excelsior," Tuvok said as he emerged from the turbolift. "The resemblance is remarkable."

While Captain Picard had, regretfully, only been able to remain aboard the Enterprise-A for a short time before being summoned back to his own vessel, Tuvok had remained aboard ship at Spockís request and with the approval of his own commanding officer, assisting in the final preparations of the Enterpriseís tactical systems. Though Spock did not expect the starshipís weapons or defenses to be necessary during this mission, he knew from experience that good captains always prepared for any eventuality.

"Indeed," he replied after a moment, understanding the younger Vulcanís reaction. While he had long ago grown accustomed to the environment of a starshipís bridge, there was a quality to this bridge that had always set it apart from others.

All bridges sound the same, he reminded himself. Or at least similar. Your observation is illogical.

Not that logic actually held any sway with him right now, of course. In fact, as he stood in the nerve center of the ship where he had served a significant portion of his life -- if only for an additional moment that was rooted more in emotion than logic -- Spock could almost believe that he had stepped backward in time.

For the most part, this was the bridge of the Enterprise as he remembered it, but the differences were as striking as they were apparent. Gone were the dedicated computer monitoring and status displays, replaced with sleeker, more modern versions. The rows of tactile buttons and switches that had once dominated the helm and navigation consoles had been replaced with black, flat touch-sensitive panels that could be configured to serve as interfaces for any shipboard system.

He noted that the young men and women working on the bridge represented several Federation races, and it was there that any similarities to the memories he harbored of his career on the Enterprise ended for good. First, the bridge crew was much more diverse than it had been in his day, a testament to the number and variety of species that had joined the Federation during the past century. Then there was the fact that each of them, like him, wore the dark pants and jacket comprising the most current version of Starfleet uniform. That, more than anything else, served to underline the fact that although he was aboard a vessel from another era, he remained most definitely in the here and now.

"I must say," he heard a familiar voice say from his right, "the new uniform suits ye well, Captain."

Spock turned to see Montgomery Scott rising from the engineering station on the starboard side of the bridge. He also was dressed in a modern uniform, complete with gold tunic underneath his jacket to signify his status as a member of the shipís operations staff.

"I must admit to an unexpected level of comfort, Mr. Scott," he replied, his right eyebrow arcing he looked about the bridge again. At first, Spock had resisted the notion of donning the uniform himself, but he had then decided it would be improper for him to assume command of the Enterprise while maintaining his civilian status. He had therefore requested a temporary reactivation of his commission, giving him the right to once again wear the uniform of a Starfleet captain. "It feels...appropriate...somehow."

Scott nodded in approval. "Aye, that it is, sir."

As Spock expected, the engineer had reacted with no small amount of surprise upon hearing of the plan to go after Captain Kirk. "If Iíd heard it from any other man," the engineer had said, "Iíd have thought him daft." That had been the limit of his doubts, however, and his enthusiasm for the idea had been mounting since then. He had spent nearly every waking moment for the past two days in the bowels of the engineering decks, overseeing the final modifications, calibrations and fine tuning adjustments of the refit. Already well on its way to being upgraded with the latest Starfleet technology, Scott had seen to it that everything aboard the ship was prepared to take on whatever was asked of it. He also expressed several ideas on how they might handle dealing with the energy ribbon once they rendezvoused with it, drawing on the memories of his previous encounter with the phenomenon, the incident which had swept James Kirk out of the 23rd century.

Everything was in place. The Enterprise was ready.

Almost.

As he turned to study the remainder of the bridge, Spock noted the bare spot on the bulkhead of the starboard turbolift alcove where a shipís dedication plaque would normally be affixed. The lack of one here was a reminder that the Enterprise would soon carry another name and registry. Would it pay tribute to a hero of the Dominion War, or perhaps carry on the heritage of one of the many vessels which had been lost during that conflict? There was even talk that the starship might be renamed in honor of its most celebrated master. While Spock thought that a noble gesture on the part of Starfleet, it was also a mark of distinction normally reserved for persons who had perished in the line of duty.

And so far as Spock was concerned, it would also be a premature decision.

"Captain," he heard a voice call out, and turned to see Lieutenant Krav, a Tellarite male, regarding him from the communications station. "We are being hailed from Starfleet Command on Earth."

"On screen, Lieutenant," Spock ordered as he stepped down into the command area and moved to stand before the captainís chair.

A moment later, the image of space and the forward edge of the orbital dry dock that lay before the bow of the ship shifted to that of a human, a male of remarkably advanced age. He was stoop-shouldered and his clothes -- a sweater worn over a variant of Starfleet uniform that had not seen active service for more than a century -- appeared to hang from his aged and emaciated frame. While his skin was pale and weathered and his hair was white and thinning, there was no mistaking the passion and determination in the bright blue eyes of Admiral Leonard McCoy.

"What the hell are you doing, Spock?" he said without preamble. "You didnít really think you could sneak back into Starfleet without me finding out about it, did you?"

Scott chuckled at McCoyís cantankerous greeting. "Good to see you again too, Doctor."

"We just had dinner two nights ago, Scotty," the elderly doctor snapped, "and neither of you say a word about this." He paused, staring at Spock momentarily before adding, "Spock, whatís so damned important that it made you put on that waiterís outfit?"

A few of the other bridge crew members laughed, though Spock noted that they just as quickly regained their composure and seemed to find renewed interested in their respective work stations.

He had considered broaching the subject with McCoy when the three of them were together, but had thought better of it. At one hundred fifty-three years of age, the doctor was nearing the upper limit of human life expectancy, and even his impressive constitution was finally beginning to show signs of succumbing to the unyielding advance of time. McCoyís own physician had recommended that he restrict his exposure to long duration space flight, a directive that McCoy himself had only grudgingly accepted. Spock would have liked for the doctor to accompany him on this mission, but he could not bring himself to risk furthering any decline in his longtime friendís health.

Turning to face Tuvok, Spock said, "Commander, perhaps you would be so kind as to explain our mission to the good doctor."

To his credit, the younger Vulcan appeared nonplussed as he acknowledged Spockís request. Directing his attention to the main viewer, he said, "Captain Spock is about to attempt a rescue of Captain Kirk."

For perhaps the first time in fifty years, Spock observed that McCoy was speechless.

It took the aged human several seconds to form a response to the blunt statement, with much of that time spent staring wide-eyed into the viewer with his mouth hanging open. Finally, he said, "Youíve got to be joking."

"I assure you that this is not a story with a humorous climax, Doctor," Spock replied.

"Then you must be crazy," McCoy said. "It only took ninety years, but it looks like that whatever they did when they took your katra out of my head and stuck it back into yours has finally come unglued."

As succinctly as he could, Spock outlined his plan, including what he had learned about the energy ribbon not only from Scott but also Captain Picard and the Enterpriseís detailed sensor logs.

"Damn," McCoy said after a few minutes. "Itís been a long time since youíve done something so completely bizarre. You were overdue, if you ask me. What does your logic have to say about all of this?"

Spock shook his head. "Logic cannot explain why, Doctor. I only know that I must pursue this course of action. I believe that Captain Kirk has called to me, and I must help him if I can."

Several seconds passed as the doctor appeared to consider what he had just heard before a smile creased the already deeply-lined skin of his face. "Well, then don't just stand there, Spock! Get cracking!"

Having now received the final -- if unofficial -- approval for which heíd been waiting, Spock bowed his head in acknowledgment. "That is my intention, Doctor. I will contact you once the mission is completed."

"You do that," McCoy replied. "And donít dawdle. Iím not getting any younger, you know." He paused, and when he smiled again it was an expression of genuine warmth. "Good luck, Spock. Be careful out there, you hear?"

Nodding, Spock said, "We shall endeavor to do just that. Enterprise out."

As the connection was severed, Tuvok moved to stand at the railing separating the bridgeís upper deck from the command area. "Captain Spock, it is time for me to return to my own vessel." Halting momentarily, the younger Vulcan seemed to be weighing his next words before saying, "I regret not being able to accompany you on your mission."

"Your assistance is most appreciated, Commander," Spock replied, "and your presence will be missed."

Raising his right hand, Tuvok offered the familiar Vulcan gesture of salutation. "Peace and long life, Captain Spock," he said. "May your journey be successful and free of incident."

The captain nodded as he returned the salute. "Live long and prosper, Commander Tuvok."

He watched Tuvok disappear into the turbolift as Scott moved to stand beside him, carrying a data pad in one hand. "Heís a good lad, that one. If the rest of his crew is like him, itís no wonder Voyager made it through that ordeal of theirs."

"Indeed," Spock replied. "Admiral Sulu said something similar during Voyagerís homecoming ceremony." His former shipmate had remembered Tuvok from his time on the Excelsior as a promising officer who only lacked the proper experience and seasoning. In Spockís view, the younger Vulcan had acquired impressive quantities of both traits.

Scott held up the data pad for Spock to see. "Well, sir, I think weíre as ready as weíre going to be."

Having kept himself apprised of the shipís refit status since arriving aboard, Spock did not have to read the pad to know what the contents would tell him. "I would agree with that assessment, Mr. Scott," he replied, noting the time as displayed on the chronometer located above the main viewer. In less than two hours, if all went according to plan, the Enterprise would be on her way.

To what, Spock was not completely certain.

*****

"To think of the things we coulda done in the old days if weíd had a setup like this," Scott said from where he sat at the main operatorís console in the Enterpriseís new astrometrics center.

"Indeed," Spock replied as he studied the array of consoles and monitors lining the bulkheads to either side of him. This was only his second opportunity to visit this area of the ship since arriving aboard, but he had already found it to be a place that, were he human, he might call his favorite aspect of the restored vessel.

The center was one of many additions made to the starship during its latest round of refurbishing. Though the original Enterprise, in her day, had boasted fourteen laboratories housing the latest scientific and computer equipment offered by 23rd century innovation, her immediate successor now sported state of the art computer processing and holographic imaging technology that could be incorporated into all manner of exploratory and investigative pursuits. The astrometrics lab in which Spock now stood was just one personification of that ongoing technological advancement. It took the basic notion of a ship-based stellar cartography center one better, incorporating a host of enhancements developed from designs created by members of the Voyagerís crew during its seven-year sojourn through the Delta Quadrant.

The design even included several updates taken from modifications made to Voyager systems by Annika Hansen, the human woman abducted as a child by the Borg collective and later rescued by the starshipís crew. Once Starfleet engineers overcame their initial fear of the woman as well as anything even remotely concerning the Borg, they quickly discovered the veritable wellspring of information Hansen offered them in a variety of engineering and science-related areas. Many believed that the collective still represented a very real threat to Federation security, despite the best efforts of the Voyager crew. With that in mind, Starfleet had spent the time since the shipís return picking Annika Hansenís brain, happily copying for its own use many aspects of technology assimilated by the Borg from other cultures throughout the galaxy.

"Iíve taken the information given to us by the Enterprise-Eís stellar cartography team," Scott said after a moment, "and updated it with the latest data available from Starfleetís deep space observation network." He tapped a series of commands into his console, and Spock watched as the large viewscreen that dominated the labís rear bulkhead flared to life. At first, it depicted a large cross-section of the Milky Way galaxy that prominently featured the Terran system and its position as the dividing line between the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.

That changed quickly as the image began to zoom forward, homing on one section of the map that Scotty had selected for further study. Pinpoints of light grew and changed into stars, most of them labeled along with their planets and bearing names from the Federationís ever-expanding stellar cartography databases. The viewer zoomed past all of them, appearing to Spock that the screen was in fact the cockpit of a spacecraft plunging headlong through the galaxy, seeking out a specific point in the vast emptiness of space.

"Theyíve come a long way since the old Epsilon stations," the veteran engineer said after a moment. "The sensor collection and imaging software is light years ahead of anything we had in our day."

The continuously moving image on the viewer was slowing now, and the screenís imaging processor was beginning to generate what Spock recognized as a red giant star around which revolved five planets. The computer identified the star as Argolis and supplied names for all of the planets and their respective moons. Near the systemís outer perimeter was one point of orange light, which the screen highlighted with a yellow circle.

"This is the ribbonís current position," Scott said. He tapped the console again and a small Starfleet symbol appeared above the orange indicator, to the left as Spock faced the screen and outside the Argolis system. "And this is us. At our present speed, we should intercept it in just about four hours."

Spock nodded. "Three hours, fifty-two minutes, fourteen seconds." Of course, he knew that actually catching the ribbon was not the problem. It was what they would do next that presented the challenge.

"Iíve run some computer simulations, Mr. Spock, trying to figure out how to compensate for the way that beastie will play havoc with the warp engines and such. When we ran into it with the Enterprise-B, we were dealing with all sorts of gravimetric interference along with fluctuations in the plasma relays and shield generators. Even if we do find a way to deal with it, I expect a mighty rough ride when we get there."

"I have complete faith in your abilities, Mr. Scott," the Vulcan replied. If there was a way for the Enterprise to venture close enough to the ribbon so that Spock could carry out his plan, he knew that the engineer would find it.

Shaking his head, Scott turned from the computer console to face his friend. "Even if I can get us there without the ship tearing apart, what do ye expect to do next? According to everything on record, damn near any ship unlucky enough to get close to that thing has been either destroyed or else suffered heavy damage."

By way of reply, Spock reached out to a console situated to the engineerís left and tapped a brief string of commands that allowed him to reprogram the interface. One of the Enterpriseís many modifications included a complete upgrade to the expansive Library Computer Access and Retrieval System, which had been Starfleetís standard software interface for nearly twenty years. Unlike the control consoles which were common during his previous Starfleet career and designed to accommodate specific functions, LCARS workstations were programmable by an individual user so that they could act as any other terminal located anywhere else aboard the ship.

Spock completed the retasking of the console so that it would mimic the functionality of the science station on the bridge. Entering another sequence of commands, the terminalís display monitor shifted to depict an image of the energy ribbon.

"This is from the sensor logs of the Enterprise-B," he said, "recorded during your previous encounter with the anomaly. According to your own report, you noted that when attempting to retrieve the El-Aurian refugees from their transport ship, their life signs were phasing in and out of our space-time continuum."

"Aye," Scott replied, "They were trapped in temporal flux. I didnít know what that meant at the time, of course, but it was nay near impossible to lock onto them with transporters." An expression of sorrow clouded the engineerís weathered features, which Spock could understand. The Enterprise-B rescue efforts had been only partially successful, recovering forty-seven El-Aurians out of more than four hundred aboard the two transport ships trapped within the ribbonís influence.

"Based on what we know of the effect the ribbon had on the El-Aurian refugees who were rescued," Spock continued, "I began to wonder if such a phenomenon might be applicable with regards to others who had been transported into the Nexus." It was a line of thinking that had ended quickly, his hypothesis shattered by Guinan, the El-Aurian who was a longtime friend of Jean-Luc Picard. The refugees rescued by the Enterprise had been unique in that they were caught in the shipís transporter beam while still in the process of transitioning to the Nexus.

"When that avenue proved unsuitable," Spock continued, "I began to look for alternatives." He tapped the console pad again and this time the image on the monitor changed to a stream of sensor information, including measurements and intensity readings.

"When you delivered the resonance burst from the Enterprise-Bís deflector dish," he said, "it temporarily disrupted the gravimetric distortions that were holding the ship and allowed you to break free. However, the action had an additional effect on the ribbon." He pointed to one line of sensor data. "The disruption of the energy field lingered for several moments after the burst, and was still active at the moment Captain Kirk was swept into the Nexus."

"And ye think this might have had an effect on him?" Scott asked.

"I have a theory," the Vulcan replied. "Based on my analysis of the resonance burstís disruption of the energy barrier surrounding the ribbon, it appears that it may have generated a graviton field around anyone who entered the Nexus during the period of interference. This could in turn disrupt the field in similar fashion whenever such an affected individual attempts to leave the Nexus and return to normal space-time."

Despite his indisputable technical prowess, it still took Scott an extra moment to contemplate the ramifications of what Spock was proposing. When he did, his expression was one of disbelief.

"So youíre sayiní that this graviton field acted like some kind of blanket thrown over the captain? That it somehow interfered with him when he left the Nexus with Captain Picard and created an echo of him, just like what happened to the El-Aurians?"

"Or it may have been an echo of the captain which left, leaving the real Captain Kirk trapped in the Nexus." He entered another command string into the control console, and the viewer shifted again, this time displaying computer-generated representations of the Enterprise and the ribbon. As he and Scott watched, a beam of light lanced forward from the symbol denoting the starship until it intercepted the ribbon.

"It is my intention," Spock said, "to recreate the circumstances of Captain Kirkís entry to the ribbon as closely as possible. I believe that delivering another resonance burst, with our own deflector relays configured in the same manner used by the Enterprise-B, will result in a similar disruption of the ribbonís energy field."

Shaking his head, Scott replied, "Iím not sure what ye think ye might accomplish, Mr. Spock. We know from experience that ye dinna have to do anything special to be swept up by the ribbon."

"Though I cannot be certain," Spock said, "there is the possibility that, given the ribbonís unusual temporal qualities, introducing a disruption in the same manner as before may well establish some form of connection to the area of the Nexus where Captain Kirk was deposited." Turning his head to look at the engineer, he added, "Of course, the odds would seem to be largely against such an occurrence."

Spock had no information to support his theories, of course. The only way to validate his hypotheses would be to travel into the Nexus and see for himself what awaited him there.

He had reviewed Picardís accounting of his own experiences upon entering the Nexus. The captain had reported being transported to what he described as a manifestation of an unrealized aspiration he had harbored at infrequent periods during his life, which had included encountering people from his past as well as individuals created whole cloth from his imagination. Picardís report indicated that the experience had seemed incredibly real to him. Only a supreme act of willpower had allowed him to resist the influence of the Nexus on his mental faculties, coupled with assistance from Guinan -- the temporally-incarcerated echo of her, at any rate.

"I suppose itís as good a theory as any," Scott said. "After all, itís not as though you could just use the Nexus to go to a point in time when the captain is still alive and retrieve him from there."

Spock shook his head. "Such an attempt would be an egregious violation of the Temporal Prime Directive. The hazards involved in such a blatant disruption of the timeline cannot be ignored, no matter the reason." Despite how strongly he felt about the mission he had chosen to undertake, he could not in good conscience take any action that might be harmful to others.

"Not that any of that matters," Scott said. "The Nexus isnít a temporal portal, anyway. It doesnít involve time travel in the usual sense." He paused at that before releasing a tired chuckle as he shook his head. "Time travel? Usual? I canna believe I just said that. Maybe Iíve been at this job too long."

Spockís eyebrow rose in response to the statement, and he allowed his own expression to soften at his friendís humor. If anyone could be considered an expert in unconventional temporal displacement, it was Montgomery Scott.

Trapped aboard a crashed starship with no hope of rescue before his life support failed, the resourceful engineer had concocted the notion of remaining dematerialized within a transporter beam until help arrived, if it ever did. It was a last-ditch survival measure, one he emerged from seventy-five years after consigning himself to it without having aged a day. So far as Scott was concerned, the intervening decades had passed in the blink of an eye.

James Kirk had experienced something similar, thanks to the Nexus. The question that still remained, however, was whether or not the captain had been the beneficiary of an unlikely sequence of events that would have had to occur in such a precise manner as to allow for his survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

In other words, he could almost hear Leonard McCoy say, youíre hoping he got lucky.


CHAPTER FOUR

As he sat in the command chair at the center of the Enterprise-Aís bridge, something he had not done in any capacity since retiring from Starfleet near the end of the 23rd century, Spock realized that many of the sensations he had experienced on those earlier occasions were returning to him, unbidden and with surprising force.

One of the things he recalled with startling clarity from his many missions aboard this vessel and its predecessor was the very palpable tension embodied by the human members of the bridge crew whenever the vessel was approaching something unknown. Sometimes that apprehension was born from excitement as they prepared to make first contact with a new alien species, while on other occasions it took the form of anxiety and even fear in the face of a powerful enemy with whom they were about to do battle.

And then there were times like these, when they were unsure of what exactly they were about to encounter. Though the officers sitting at the various bridge stations appeared to be engrossed in their respective tasks, Spock noted the frequent glances toward the main viewscreen, which depicted stars streaking past as the Enterprise plunged through space at high warp.

He understood their uneasiness, and indeed even shared in it, if only to a minor degree. After all, the idea of attempting to recover someone long thought dead was not logical, even when considering the numerous bizarre situations he and his shipmates had experienced during their Starfleet careers.

Indeed, it was quite possible that this entire venture could prove not only to be a waste of time but also a hazardous undertaking for the ship and the officers who had volunteered to join him. While none of them had understood the true nature of Spockís intentions until they reported for duty, he had explained the goal of the mission along with all of the known risks to the entire crew before the Enterprise left dry dock. There had been many expressions of incredulity, but not a single person had requested transfer from the ship.

Spock was sure that many of them were drawn to the unusual historic nature of the operation, or perhaps they had succumbed to the lure of going on a mission with him and Mr. Scott, two so-called Starfleet legends. Whatever the reason, he was gratified that they had answered the call, for it would take their combined talents to achieve the goal he had come here to accomplish.

"Now entering visual range," reported Lieutenant Palin, the young Andorian woman at the helm station.

"On screen, Lieutenant," Spock ordered, and the image on the screen shifted from that of streaking stars, leaping ahead to display a strand of orange-white energy, undulating as it drifted across space as if possessed by its own consciousness. Finally, after seeing it uncounted times in sensor recordings and in the visions haunting his own mind, it was here in all its vigorous, frenzied grandeur.

The ribbon.

"Gravimetric distortions are already off the scale," Scott reported from the engineering station to Spockís right. "Weíve got some minor fluctuations in the warp plasma relays. Nothing we canít handle, though, at least from this distance."

Spock heard the warning tone in his friendís voice. "I trust that the new shield generators and your own modifications will prove sufficient, Mr. Scott. Lieutenant Palin, continue intercept course."

At the helm, the Andorian replied, "Aye, Captain." She tapped commands into her console, and without looking up from her task reported, "Gravimetric interference is increasing, sir."

"Ye need to alter our trajectory a wee bit to compensate, lassie," Scott said, turning from his own station. "Not too much, but just enough to give us a cushion against the distortion wave."

Getting this far had been simple, but everything now relied upon the Enterprise being able to get close enough to the ribbon for Spock to put the next phase of his plan into motion. Still, even with the shipís enhanced and upgraded shield generators and structural integrity systems, it would be difficult traversing the outer boundary of the energy field.

Spock could already feel the shipís initial protestations as it approached the ribbon, in the vibrating deck plates beneath his feet and even in the arms of the command chair, its subtle reverberations transmitted to the tips of his fingers. He alternated his attention between the image of the ribbon on the main viewer and the astrogation display situated between the helm and navigation stations in front of him. It would not be long before the Enterprise was in proper position, after which the next stage of his bold and admittedly illogical scheme would be up to him.

"Increasing power to the shields," Scott reported a moment later. "Itís bound to get bumpy from here, Captain."

"Acknowledged," Spock replied. Looking to the science station on the starboard side of the bridge, he asked, "Commander Grinstead, current sensor readings?"

Seated at the science console, the tall, lanky human turned in his chair, the overhead lighting reflecting off his close-cropped orange-red hair. "The ribbon is acting like a dampening field, Captain. Most of our sensor scans are being reflected back altogether, while others are simply overpowered and disrupted by the distortion wave. Iíve had some success with a few adjustments to one dyno-scanner, but even those readings are muddled." Frowning as he offered his report, Grinstead added, "That thing could be hiding an entire planet for all I know, or a fleet of Romulan warships."

"Let us hope that is not the case, Commander," Spock said, altering the inflection of his voice just enough for Grinstead to know he was offering a small measure of humor with his words.

"It's the same problem we encountered before, Mr. Spock," Scott offered. "Sensors were next to useless then, too."

Spock nodded in agreement. Reports submitted by Captain Picard and his senior officers during their encounter with the ribbon nine years earlier had offered similar conclusions. He was not troubled by Grinsteadís report, as he had already been expecting this turn of events.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he attempted to screen out the sights, sounds and other gentle assaults on his senses in an effort to focus only on the ribbon. He searched for something, anything that might indicate the odd stellar phenomenon was more than a simple manifestation of energy. If indeed he had been able to establish some form of link with the Nexus from vast interstellar distances or -- more importantly, someone trapped inside it -- then surely initiating such a connection from the Enterpriseís current proximity to the ribbon would offer a far lesser challenge.

Instead, he felt nothing.

Wait....

At the edge of his awareness, he sensed...something. Concentrating, Spock became aware of the tendrils -- wisps, really -- of another consciousness that seemed to be reaching out for him, trying to touch his own mind. It was fleeting, teasing him and refusing to coalesce into anything substantial. The harder he tried to draw it closer to him, the more it resisted.

Nevertheless, it was there.

Spock....

"Mr. Spock? Are ye all right, sir?"

His eyes snapped open in response to the question, and he looked up to see Scott standing just to his right, gripping the bridge railing for support. How had he not heard the engineerís approach? So intent was his attempt to make contact with the Nexus that he had become momentarily oblivious to everything and everyone around him.

In an instant, it all returned. The vibrations of the ship as it was buffeted by the rolling waves of the ribbonís distortion field were more intense now. All around him, he sensed the rising tension among the bridge crew, their anxiety rising as the Enterprise continued its approach.

Rising from the command chair, he turned to his friend. "I am fine, Mr. Scott. Helm, continue present course and speed, and route auxiliary power to the forward shields." Turning to Scott, he asked, "What is the status of the deflector modifications?"

"All set, sir," Scott replied. "Iíve reconfigured the deflector relays to emit a resonance burst thatís similar to the one we used on the Enterprise-B. Once we arrive at the interception point, ye give the word and we fire into the ribbon. That should be all thatís needed." Sighing, he added, "The rest is up to you, Mr. Spock."

Spock nodded in satisfaction. "Excellent. Keep me apprised of our progress. You have the bridge."

"Aye, sir," Scott replied. "Weíll hold the fort Ďtil ye get back." There was a moment of silence between the two longtime friends, as well as one of mutual understanding. Time for discussions had passed, replaced now with the need for action.

How very human, he decided, and how very much like the captain.

Without another word, Spock moved toward the turbolift at the rear of the bridge. As the doors parted and he began to step into the lift, however, he found himself all but overcome by an odd compulsion. Pausing, he turned and cast a final look at the viewer and the image of the writhing, chaotic fury that was the ribbon.

He had been close, so very close, able to feel just a hint of what he sought. It had been enough, however, to affirm what he had suspected. As it had been all along, the answer was here. He was sure of it now.

Somewhere, out there -- beyond the corporeal, and beyond the logical -- James Kirk waited.

*****

"Bridge to Captain Spock. Weíve arrived at the interception point, sir."

Montgomery Scottís voice echoed in the confines of the helmet as Spock lowered it over his head and seated it into his environmental suitís molded neck ring. The pressurization indicator on the control pad mounted to the suitís left wrist flashed green, advising him that the suit was now properly sealed as he felt cool air begin to circulate inside the helmet.

"Acknowledged," he said as he activated the suitís internal communications system. "Maintain present position, Mr. Scott." Even as he spoke the words, Spock envisioned the scene taking place around him, with the Enterprise maintaining a constant distance in front of the energy ribbon as it traveled through space.

"Everything checks out, sir," said Ensign Nomi, the young Trill officer on duty in this extravehicular activity preparation area and who had assisted Spock in suiting up for his pending EVA. "Youíre ready to go." Holding a data pad, she held up the unit so that he could see its small display and verify that his suitís internal systems were operating normally.

Spock nodded in satisfaction. "Excellent. Thank you, Ensign," he said as he adjusted the straps of the emergency thruster pack so that the unit sat more comfortably on his shoulders. That accomplished, he pulled the packís pair of control arms down to their full operational position. Though it had been nearly a century since he had last worn an environmental suit, he carried out the tasks necessary to complete the preparations for EVA as easily as if he had never left the active Starfleet ranks.

Everything was now in place. All that remained was for him to actually step forward and test his theory.

He tapped his wrist keypad, and the reinforced airlock door in front of him opened in response to the command. A sapphire blue force field flared into existence in the doorway, separating the prep room from the airlockís outer hatch. Its low-intensity hum reverberated through the chamber, and Spock could even feel its effects through the hardened material of his suit.

"Mr. Scott," he spoke into his helmet communicator. "I am disembarking now. Is the deflector ready?"

"Affirmative, Mr. Spock," the engineer replied. "All ye have to do is give the word."

Pressing another key on the control pad, Spock watched as the outer hatch cycled open. Only the force field protected the interior of the ship from the harsh vacuum of empty space.

Actually, space was not quite empty.

The roiling orange-white firestorm of the ribbon danced before him. So close and without the enhancement of any computer imaging systems, the energy field writhed and twisted in all its natural fury. It seemed near enough that Spock almost believed he could reach out and touch it.

An interesting observation, he conceded, given what is to come.

"Good luck, sir."

Though not startled, Spock was nevertheless surprised to admit that he had almost forgotten about Ensign Nomi, who was still standing patiently behind him, waiting to assist. He turned to face the young Trill, who was regarding him with an open expression of hope.

"I read about your missions when I was a child," she said. "I loved reading about all of the Enterprise missions, but it was yours and Captain Garrettís that made me want to join Starfleet. I hope you can bring Captain Kirk back. It would be an honor to meet him."

Spock almost allowed the slightest of smiles to soften his features when she blushed. "I will endeavor to make that happen, Ensign. Thank you for your assistance."

With that, he turned and stepped through the force field.

He felt the magnets in his boots take hold of the deck beneath his feet as he stepped to the edge of the doorway, requiring only slightly more effort than if he were walking under normal gravity conditions. Light from the ribbon reflected off the polished metal bulkheads of the airlock, giving the vestibule the feeling that he was standing on the edge of a massive pool. There was a pattern, a harmony to the energy coiling in and about the field that almost made it appear somehow alive, waiting for the Enterprise to draw close enough so that it could ensnare the vessel in its grip.

Taking hold of the packís control arms, Spock tapped the unitís maneuvering thrusters, feeling it press into his back as it pushed him away from the ship and into open space. His only sense of movement was seeing the hull of the ship withdrawing to either side of him as he pushed forward, toward the energy ribbon. A moment later he felt the tenuous, invisible, and almost imperceptible grasp of the starshipís tractor beam as it gripped him.

Modified to its weakest setting and with Scott manipulating it to affect nothing more harsh than a comforting embrace, the beam now maneuvered Spock into position in front of the Enterprise. The forward edge of the shipís saucer section passed by overhead, dropping behind him and out of his field of vision as he moved ahead. Now that the cover provided by the vesselís hull was gone, his entire body was bathed in the dazzling light cast off by the ribbon. It was so forceful that Spock found he almost could not see the displays on his wrists and the thruster packís control panel. He tapped a key on his wrist and his helmet visor darkened in response, blocking out the worst of the intense illumination.

"Weíre all set up here, Mr. Spock," he heard Scott say over the communications link. "Deflector is at full power."

"Acknowledged," Spock replied as he pulled the control arm near his left hand down into position, giving him access to the thruster packís ignition system. The next part of the operation, while the most dangerous, had been arguably the easiest for which to prepare. For a moment, he considered the similarities of the maneuver to one he had undertaken more than a century ago.

It had occurred during the Enterpriseís mission to make contact with Víger, the immense entity that had begun life as Voyager 6, the ancient space probe launched from Earth in the late 20th century. After encountering a civilization of living machines, the primitive spacecraft had evolved beyond the limitations of a mere construct to achieve consciousness itself. Spockís own experience with the mammoth being had taken place on both the physical and psychological levels, beginning with him sensing its potent call from the depths of space and culminating with him traveling into the heart of the colossal machine in order to understand its reasons for traveling to Earth.

His entry into the energy ribbon now would, if successful, be accomplished using a technique similar to what he had done to gain access to Vígerís interior regions. Where that had required him to determine the intervals during which he could pass through a portal into the entityís inner chamber, the maneuver he was about to execute merely required him to synchronize his own movements with the delivery of the resonance burst from the Enterpriseís deflector dish.

The thruster pack would facilitate that, of course.

With the dazzling, frenetic light of the ribbon illuminating his every movement, Spock reached for the control pad and pressed the thrusterís arming control.

"Warning," said the voice of the packís small onboard computer system as the arming indicator flashed red, "your emergency evacuation thruster pack has been armed." It was a standard response, of course, though Spock questioned its logic. After all, the recessed controls on the pad were deliberately designed to prevent accidental activation.

The device was obviously not built by Vulcans.

"Once ignited," the computer continued, "the burn duration is ten seconds and may not be aborted. Push the Igniter Enable Release to begin a ten second countdown to thruster ignition. To abort countdown, flip the control arm up."

"Mr. Scott," Spock said as he rested his gloved finger on the control that would commence the countdown to the packís ignition, "Activate deflector in ten seconds from my mark."

"Aye, sir," the engineer replied. "Standing by."

Spock paused to direct one last look at the ribbon. From this distance he could make out almost the entire span of the energy strand as it coiled, surged and rippled before him. What would he find once he crossed its threshold? How powerful would its influence be over him? Would the mental disciplines championed by his people and with which he had struggled throughout his life aid or hinder him during his quest? Was James Kirk somewhere inside the ribbon, or rather, inside the mysterious pocket of space-time that could only be reached by passing through the energy boundary embodied by the ribbon?

The time had come to find out.

Spock pressed the padís Igniter Enable key, the control flashing beneath his finger and the panelís small display activating as the count up to ignition was executed: 01...02....

He drew his legs up until his body simulated a sitting position as closely as was possible given his environment suitís confining nature. As he did so, he took one final look at his suitís status monitors. Everything still showed nominal.

06...07....

"Fire the deflector," he ordered.

In a testament to Montgomery Scottís deft touch, the gentle grasp of the Enterpriseís tractor beam faded at the precise instant the counter reached ten and Spock felt the thruster pack push into his back as it ignited. It all occurred in marvelous synchronicity as the starshipís deflector unleashed the resonance burst. Even as his own forward motion accelerated under the force of the emergency thruster, Spock saw the blue-white beam lunge forward on his left side, no more than fifty meters away from him and crossing the gulf of space between the Enterprise and the ribbon.

The counter on the control panel was cycling down from ten, passing seven as the beam struck the energy fieldís outer edge. Its influence was unmistakable, its concentrated power pushing aside the ribbonís undulating orange chaos. The disruption was visible to the naked eye, growing in intensity with each passing second. Spock noted the passage of the ribbonís outer boundaries beyond the limits of his peripheral vision as his control panelís counter display reached one and finally cycled to zero.

Its sparse fuel supply exhausted by the short-duration yet concentrated burn, the thruster pack deactivated precisely on schedule. The panel on the unitís left control arm faded to black, its usefulness along with the thrusterís at an end even as Spockís forward momentum continued unabated, carrying him toward the electrifying maelstrom produced by the deflector burst and its impact on the ribbon. He noted the subtle yet undeniable vibrations in the hardened material of his environment suit as it responded to the fieldís effects, the sensation increasing even as the distance separating him from the ribbon continued to dwindle.

"Boundary penetration in five seconds!" he heard Scott say through the still-open communications link, though he had to strain to hear the engineerís voice over the mounting rumble that seemed to be enveloping him as he drifted forward. The light pouring forth from the energy field intensified, along with the reverberating sensations washing over Spock. It eclipsed the stars, the ribbon, the Enterprise, everything.

And then....


CHAPTER FIVE

Soothing heat washed over him, penetrating the layers of his desert soft suit and warming his skin. Sunlight streamed through an opening in the terraceís thick stone wall. The room, an outer area that had been added to the original structure, had been fashioned by slabs of granite and fitted together in such a way that required no means of binding or connection between the individual pieces. The window carved into the wall before him was large enough to afford a familiar picturesque view down the hillside, leading west from the house down to the center of the Vulcan city of ShiKahr.

Spockís ears picked up on the gentle, melodious cadence of water flowing down between rocks and into a small pond, coupled with the almost inaudible hum of the filtration unit tasked with cleaning and circulating the water. His nostrils detected the varying scents of numerous types of flora, collected from worlds across the Federation and gathered here, with utmost care taken to ensure that the various species were able to coexist in absolute harmony with one another.

His motherís garden.

Situated in the southern corner of the family home, the side of the arboretum that faced to the south was free of obstruction, with no walls or other barriers save for the raised cisterns containing the more delicate flower arrangements. The layout afforded an unfettered view of the rolling dunes and distant mountains that lay to the south. Spock had spent many hours here throughout his childhood, and later during his visits home after joining Starfleet. Such occasions were rare, of course, and not altogether pleasant given his fatherís disapproval with his choice of career. Whenever he did return home, Sarek restricted his dialogues with his son only to the most essential communications, leaving Spock to spend the majority of his stay with his mother.

There was none of that awkwardness now, however. Instead, Spock could not help but feel a sense of contentment wash over him as he studied the familiar surroundings. At first he searched for a reason to explain his satisfaction, but the importance of that question, along with others he knew were posing themselves elsewhere in his mind, seemed to fade.

They vanished altogether when he heard his fatherís voice.

"Spock," Sarek said, addressing the young Vulcan boy standing before him and Amanda Grayson. "What is the meaning of this?"

In his guise as Selek, a distant cousin visiting Sarekís home and the identity he had chosen upon venturing through the Guardian of Forever back to this point in time, Spock watched his younger self standing up straight and possessing an air of newfound confidence, just as he remembered doing while occupying in that very spot at seven years of age.

He knew that the boy was still hurting from the death of IíChaya, his beloved pet that had followed him into the Vulcan desert as he took on the demands of the Kahs-wan ritual and saved his life when he was attacked by a vicious lematya. Still, young Spock nevertheless had presented himself to his father as a boy making his first tentative foray into adulthood, prepared to accept responsibility for his actions and whatever punishment that might result.

"I regret having troubled you in any way," the younger Spock said, "but it was necessary."

His right eyebrow arching in skepticism, the only conceit to emotion that he had ever allowed, Sarek replied, "I trust you can explain why it was necessary?"

Spock watched as his father leveled a withering gaze at the boy. He recalled the quiet intensity of that expression, which had done its utmost best to defeat the barrier of self-assurance he had erected around himself. It was a favored tactic of Sarekís, one that succeeded often.

But not today.

"There was a decision to be made," the younger Spock said. "A direction for my life had to be chosen. I chose Vulcan."

The first time this conversation had taken place, when it was he who was the seven-year old boy, Spock had been unable to see his mother from where she stood behind him. This time, however, he saw Amanda Grayson close her eyes as she heard her son make the bold pronouncement about how he would seek to live his life. At first, he thought the expression might be one of disappointment, sadness that her only son had chosen to forsake his human heritage.

What he had not known then but would instead learn years later was that she was in actuality bracing herself for the tremendous hardship Spock would endure while pursuing the rigid, demanding standards required of Vulcan society. His dual lineage would present its own unique set of challenges, many of which he would face alone as he grew older and decided on a life that differed from that envisioned by his father.

"It is good then," Sarek said, nodding in approval. "You have comported yourself with honor. We will see IíChaya is brought home from the mountains." Reaching out, he placed a paternal hand on the boyís shoulder. "I am proud of you, Spock."

The exchange between father and son abruptly triggered an alert in Spockís mind, and it required a physical effort on his part to keep his own expression fixed. There was something about the way that Sarek was addressing his younger self seemed out of sorts from what he remembered of the original conversation.

My father did not react with that much emotion, he realized. Sarek had almost never expressed pride in any of his sonís accomplishments. Spock did not believe it was because his father did not feel such satisfaction, but that he simply chose not to express such sentiments openly, even in private conversations such as the one taking place now.

In fact, the only time Spock could recall hearing praise of this nature in recent memory was following the crisis of the mysterious probe that had come to Earth from deep space. It had arrived intending to communicate with a particular breed of whale and when its attempts made it realize that the entire species had become extinct, it had lashed out, seeking to avenge the loss of its friends by extinguishing all remaining life on the planet. Only quick and bold action by Spock and his companions from the Enterprise had prevented Earthís destruction.

Wait, his mind called to him. That event has not happened yet.

At the time Spock had stepped through the Guardian to assume the role of Selek and prevent his own death as a child, the incident with the alien probe was still several years in the future. Therefore, how could he possibly know about it now? Thunder roared in Spockís ears and there was a momentary sense of disorientation not unlike the feeling he experienced when captured by a transporter beam. Then a flash of light wiped across his vision, washing away Sarek as well as the warmth of the desert wafting into the open arboretum....

*****

...and the stone walls of Amanda Graysonís garden were gone, replaced with smooth tritanium panels offset by columns of subdued lighting. In contrast to the warm hues and gentle slopes that characterized Vulcan construction techniques, this room was a composite of dull grays and cool blues deployed with sharp, angular precision. Its construction, coupled with the absence of carpeting or other noise-dampening materials, conspired to produce effective acoustics that allowed a speaker to be heard throughout the length of the Federation Council chambers even while talking in a normal voice.

Gone also was the comforting desert heat, replaced with cool air circulated through environmental control systems designed primarily with earthbound humans in mind. While many humanoid species currently living on Earth felt at home in the planetís temperate climate, Spock and Vulcans in general had always found it a bit on the cold side for their preference.

Rows of seats ran the length of the chambers, which only moments before had been filled both with supports and detractors of Admiral James Kirk and the command crew of the late U.S.S. Enterprise, on trial for violating a number of Starfleet regulations. The incredible actions of Kirk and his crew -- traveling through time to 20th century Earth in order to bring back a pair of humpback whales which could communicate with the alien probe -- had resulted in the dismissal of nearly all of the charges against them and the return of James Kirk to his first, best destiny: the command of a starship.

The immense chamber was empty now, however, save for himself and his father. Sarek, as always, was dressed in his ambassadorial robes. Looking around the room, Spock knew almost at once that something here was not as it should be. There was no sign of the newly-demoted Captain James Kirk, who he expected to be standing quietly near the roomís far exit, offering him a moment of privacy while he spoke with his father.

Is this real? Glancing down at himself, Spock noted that he was dressed in a standard Starfleet duty uniform, the type he had not worn for nearly eighty years.

"Spock," he heard Sarek say.

Turning to regard the elder Vulcan, he bowed his head in formal greeting, Spock replied, "Father."

"I am leaving for Vulcan within the hour," Sarek said, "and I wished to take my leave of you."

Spock sensed the now quite-familiar air of uncertainty his father seemed to radiate on the rare occasions that they conversed. "It was kind of you to make this effort," he offered, repeating what he had said when this scene had played out originally.

Clasping his hands before him, Sarek said, "It was no effort. You are my son. Besides, I wished to tell you that I am most impressed with your performance in this crisis." Was it Spockís imagination, or was there a suggestion of pride in his fatherís voice that he had not heard before?

"Most kind," he offered, noting that his father almost seemed taken aback by the very un-Vulcan like response.

"As I recall," Sarek said, "I opposed your enlistment in Starfleet. It is possible that judgment was in error. I know that you have faced many challenges during your life, Spock, not the least of which was your dual birthright."

Once again, Spock was surprised by his fatherís statements, words that he had never heard Sarek utter. I have been here before, and he did not say all of these things.

"I regret that I could not be of greater assistance to you during your struggles," his father continued, "but I am most pleased to see how you have triumphed." Pausing a moment, he added, "Your associates are people of good character, and it is now quite obvious to me that you are a better person for having known them."

"They are my friends," he said, unsure of the significance of what Sarek was saying, offering sentiments that had not been stated on the occasion this conversation had actually taken place. Why were things different now? Why had they been different on Vulcan, where he had been mere moments earlier even though Spock knew in his mind that the incident in question had occurred well over a century ago?

And then, suddenly, he saw the connection.

While some of what Sarek had said, both here and on Vulcan, reflected Spockís memories of the actual events, what they shared were things that he wished his father had said, not only on those occasions but at other critical junctures during his life as well. While it went against Vulcan logic to desire such compassionate behavior, it was that very understanding his human half had always sought.

At an earlier age, Spock might have expressed shame for harboring such thoughts, but his life and experiences as well as the relationships he had forged with many humans, James Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise in particular, had taught him that disavowing his mixed heritage was the height of illogical behavior. Rather than forsake his human traits, he had instead learned to appreciate them, even to embrace them and incorporate them into his life. The result of that insight was a well-rounded person, disciplined by logic but not ruled by it, aware of his emotions and yet not subservient to them.

The only thing he had ever lacked was his fatherís acceptance of what Spock himself had come to realize. That recognition had never been voiced, not even here, in this place and at this point in time. Even in years hence, after he and Sarek once more drifted apart and remained that way until his fatherís death, that acknowledgment had never come.

Therefore, there could be only one explanation for what he was experiencing now.

This is not really happening. Why am I here?

Awareness returned with a jolt, the memories of his mission resolving with startling clarity. He remembered it all now. The energy ribbon. The Nexus.

"Fascinating," Spock said to no one in particular as he looked about the council chamber. The Nexus and the ersatz realities it generated, apparently at the whim of the individual and in compliance with their wishes both mindful and subliminal, had proven to be as effective in its enticements as Jean-Luc Picard had warned they would be. Even now, when he was fully cognizant of his surroundings and their unreal nature, Spock was sure that he still felt the pull of the Nexus, calling out to him to return to its fold.

I cannot.

It was a command, a directive to focus on the task at hand. The reason for his having come to this place had never been so clear as it was now. Somewhere within the immeasurable expanse of this bizarre pocket of alternate reality, the object of his quest still waited.

Captain, his mind called out. Where are you?

The flash of light returned, obscuring Sarek along with the cold, lifeless council chamber, and once more Spock sensed that he was being moved, but to where?

*****

When he could see again, the first thing Spock noticed was that he was staring at his surroundings through the faceplate of his environmental suit helmet.

He stood in the middle of a wooded glade. It was small, no more than thirty meters in diameter. The trees towered above him, firs and pines stretching up toward a crystal blue sky. All around him the terrain was rough and uneven, rock emerging from grass and hard-packed dirt and much of that covered with a thin, undisturbed blanket of gleaming white snow. Removing his helmet, Spock noted that the air harbored a distinct chill, cold enough that he could see his breath. His ears detected soft droplets of water as some of the snow melted from direct exposure to sunlight.

Spock knew precisely where he was. He had been here once before, and had even walked through this very area of the forest, finding the solitude it offered to be more than compensatory for having to endure the frigid temperatures. Dr. McCoy had likened the climate to that of the Sarpeidon ice age, though Spock of course could not bring himself to agree with such an overt exaggeration.

It took only a moment to locate the trail he knew lay at the clearingís southern edge, a gentle winding path created by years of foot traffic coated in fallen pine needles and patches of snow. As with the glade itself, the trail appeared unchanged from his previous visit here. Cradling his helmet in the crook of his left arm, Spock set off through the forest.

His memory of the path and its route through the forest did not fail him, for in mere moments he caught sight of a structure beyond the foliage, its sharp angles and straight lines contrasting with the rolling hills and irregular profiles presented by the trees. Even with his view partially obscured, Spock could still see the roof of the house. As he drew closer, he detected the irregular yet distinctive echo of metal striking wood, accompanied by what sounded to him like someone grunting from physical effort.

Despite himself, Spock actually felt a sense of anticipation beginning to assert itself. Out of reflex he attempted to dampen it, to wrest control of the inarguably emotional reaction and force it back down beneath his veneer of logic and discipline. The response was not at all unlike what he had experienced on many past occasions when he had discovered Captain Kirk to be alive after being presumed dead. In a few of those instances, Spockís emotions had surfaced so quickly and with such intensity that he had either been unable to suppress them or else it had required significant effort to regain his composure. He recalled the shame he had felt in the face of those lapses, at a period in his life when he had not yet learned to live in harmony with his dual heritage. That time had long since passed, of course. Now, Spock allowed himself to experience the emotions welling up from within him as well as rejoice in them, if only in the privacy of his own mind, and without disgrace of any kind.

The trees flanking him thinned before he left them behind altogether, the trail opening up into the small glade that served as the expansive front yard for the two-story house. Constructed with an exterior of wood and stone, the two-story home backed up to a steep hillside that ascended at least one hundred meters above the house. Then Spock halted in mid-stride as he caught sight of the person standing alone in the clearing.

James T. Kirk.

Recalling what Captain Picard had told him about his own encounter with Kirk here, Spock knew that his friend -- through advent of the mysterious temporal properties harbored by the Nexus -- had only just arrived here after being pulled from the Enterprise-B nine decades ago. Dressed in his Starfleet uniform save for the maroon jacket placed carefully atop a nearby pile of wood, he looked much the same as the last time Spock had seen him at the captainís official retirement ceremony on Earth, held on the grounds of Starfleet Academy where the captainís now renowned career had begun.

No, he decided. Rather, the captain appeared happier now than Spock could remember seeing him in a long time, even in the years prior to their last meeting. During that period, Kirk had perfected the art of presenting a calm and composed demeanor while keeping his true emotional state at bay. This had been especially true at his retirement, which had come only days after the completion of the Enterprise-Aís final mission and her return to Earth for decommissioning. On that day, Spock was able to tell that the smile gracing Kirkís features was nothing more than a facade erected for the benefit of those who had come to honor him and his career. Only a close friend would know that the captain was still struggling to accept that a part of his life he had held dear for so long was finally, inexorably coming to an end.

All of that was gone now, however. Here, immersed in the effects of the Nexus, Kirk exuded the very strength and vigor that had come to be associated with the legendary captain of the Enterprise. He wielded a large, double-bladed axe, swinging the implement over his head and driving its sharpened steel into the large piece of wood he had placed on the chopping block at his feet. There was a resounding crack as the blade split the wood into two smaller sections, each one falling to the ground on either side of the block. Kirk smiled in unabashed contentment, relishing the exertion as he reached for one of the newly separated pieces and placed it atop the block.

For a brief moment Spock considered that this might be yet another illusion, another manifestation conjured forth by the Nexus for his own benefit. If not that, then was the man standing before him instead an echo of Kirk, some remnant left behind when he elected to leave with Captain Picard during their meeting?

Reaching to a side pocket on the right leg of his environment suit, he retrieved the tricorder stored there and activated it, the device displaying its scan results a scant few seconds later. By all accounts, the man standing before him was a flesh and blood human. Further, the tricorder was also detecting a trace of graviton particles surrounding Kirk, strengthening Spockís own theory about what had happened to the captain when he had been pulled from the Enterprise-B. So far as he could tell, this was the real James Kirk.

What if this too is an illusion?

Apparently realizing that he was no longer alone, the captain paused in mid-swing as he was bringing the axe up for another chop and looked toward Spock, his smile widening in recognition.

"Spock!" he exclaimed. "What the devil are you doing here?"

"Jim," Spock replied as he stepped forward.

Looking up toward the sky, Kirk asked, "Beautiful day, isnít it?" Then a frown clouded his features as he regarded Spock. "Why are you wearing that suit?"

Ignoring the question, Spock stepped closer. "Captain, this may sound odd." Even as he spoke he realized that Kirk was no longer listening but had instead returned to chopping wood. He was absorbed by the influence of the Nexus, captivated by the scene around him and unaware that he was enveloped by a simulated milieu. Knowing from his own firsthand experience how powerful that lure could be, Spock considered his options. "Jim," he began again, "there is something we must discuss. I believe that...."

He stopped again when Kirk paused in his work, his brow knitting in confusion as he looked back toward his house. "Do you smell something burning?" Only then did Spock note the strange scent gently assailing his nostrils, recognizing it as the odor of food burning nearby. Turning toward the house, he saw no fire but instead caught sight of a thin trail of light gray smoke drifting from an open window. Kirk let the axe drop until its blade embedded itself in the chopping block as he began to move toward the house.

"Jim, wait!" Spock called out, surprised by the power driving his words. He realized that if he did not take action, his friend would continue to play out the scenario generated by the Nexus.

Something in his voice must have had an effect for Kirk stopped his advance to the house. "What is it?" he asked as he regarded Spock, his expression one of puzzlement.

Spock replied, "None of this is real, Captain. You were transported here from the Enterprise-B by the energy ribbon you encountered. The ribbon acts as a doorway beyond our space-time continuum, and allows one to visit any time or place they wish."

Looking around him, Kirk frowned in obvious doubt. "What are you talking about? Are you saying that the ribbon acted as some kind of gateway, and that weíve traveled through time somehow?"

"No, Captain, at least not by any means with which we are familiar. According to historical records, you were killed during the Enterprise-Bís maiden voyage, after helping to rescue it from that energy ribbon. What records do not reflect is that you later left this place to assist another Starfleet officer who found you here, and that you died during that effort."

Given what he had just heard, Kirk appeared to take it well enough. "Youíre telling me that all of this has happened before?"

Nodding, Spock replied, "In a manner of speaking, yes." He did not fully understand the properties of the Nexus, of course, just as he did not completely comprehend the range of its effects on those trapped within its confines. "However, I believe that I can help you to leave this place once and for all."

Kirk took in his surroundings again. "But if Iím dead," he said, offering a slight smile, "there are far worse places I could have ended up, donít you think?"

The question, though he believed it to have been offered at least somewhat in jest, still gave Spock pause. He had not considered the possibility that Kirk, once enveloped by the warm blanket of happiness presented by the Nexus, might actually want to remain here. After all, this place provided its inhabitants with an unending fantasy in which to live. They could move backward or forward through time, perhaps reliving and correcting a past mistake, or looking ahead to see the ultimate results of the life they had chosen to live. All of that, and more, was possible in this place, and even Spock could not deny the allure of what the Nexus promised. Such temptation would test the will of any normal person, with the reward more than enough to overpower the reticence of even the most circumspect individual.

And afterward?

Nothing here was relevant. How could a man like James Kirk be satisfied with a life consumed by such artificiality, where oneís accomplishments served no purpose except to fulfill personal desires? How long would it take for him, or any other person with comparable drive and passion, to realize the emptiness of a life spent in unending fantasy? Had Kirk already begun to understand his surroundings, only to have the Nexus compensate and increase its pull on him? Could that explain the sensations Spock had experienced earlier, when he thought he had heard the captainís voice? Was the Nexus even now tightening its grip, bent on trapping him here forever?

No, Spock decided. I will not allow it.

"Captain," he said, "you must trust me. Let me prove to you that what you see around you is not real." Shaking his head, Kirk replied, "An illusion?" He indicated the house behind him. "Everything is just as I remember it. I...." As his voice trailed off, Spock noted the new confusion in the captainís expression. Realization seemed to be stirring, slowly crawling its way out of the depths of Kirkís mind. "No," he said as he looked at his home again, "this is wrong. I sold this house years ago, so why am I here now? I donít understand...."

"Jim," Spock said, "let me help." Setting down his suitís helmet, he began removing his gloves.

Kirk turned to face him, saw the way Spock held out his right hand, thumb and forefinger nearly forming a circle, with the other three fingers spread and extended. "A mind meld?"

Spock nodded. "I believe it will prove helpful." As the captain nodded his consent, Spock reached out and placed the fingers of his right hand at the katra points of Kirkís face. He applied pressure and Kirkís eyes closed in immediate response.

"My mind to your mind," Spock said, his voice barely a whisper as he initiated the ancient ritual. Closing his eyes, he continued, "Our minds are merging. Our minds are one."

He probed gently, seeking out the memories of Kirkís last moments on the Enterprise-B. The starshipís deflector control room leaped into sharp relief in his own mind, the vessel trembling violently while in the grips of the energy ribbon. Spock saw his own hands working frantically on the console as he reconfigured the deflector control system. His body shook as an energy discharge from the ribbon rocked the ship, tearing out the bulkhead in front of him, and he felt bone-numbing cold as he was blown into space.

Spock!

He recoiled at the sound of his own name echoing in his mind. Even as he was being pulled into vacuum and toward his own certain death, Kirk had still called out to him, hoping beyond all logic and reason that Spock could come to his aid. Was this the plaintive cry he had been sensing all of these years? Had the Nexus somehow preserved this, one of Kirkís last frantic thoughts drawing him into its influence?

I am sorry that I could not help you, he thought, once again experiencing guilt and helplessness at being unable to render that assistance. But I am here now. I have been....

"And always will be your friend," Kirk said aloud.

Spockís eyes snapped open to see his friend looking back at him, his eyes red-rimmed and lined with a hint of moisture. "Captain?" he asked as he pulled his hand back. The meld had erased all remaining doubt. This was not an illusion, and neither was it an echo or other artificial presentation. Standing before him, corporeal, living and breathing, was the real James Kirk.

Nodding, Kirk replied, "Yes, Spock. I understand now." He looked to the house, and Spock noted a sadness darkening Kirkís features. "It seemed so real," he said after a moment spent in reflective silence. Offering a humorless chuckle, he added, "It might even have been real enough, given time."

"I too have experienced the Nexus," Spock said, recalling the still-fresh encounters. "An interesting experience, to say the least."

Kirk drew himself up, taking in a deep breath before turning away from the house, and Spock saw that the captainís jaw was set in new resolve and confidence. "So, now what?" he asked. "Doesnít my going back to the 23rd century risk changing history?"

Reining in his relief and pride at seeing his friend already seeming to revert to his former self, Spock nodded. "Indeed it does, Captain. The Department of Temporal Investigations would no doubt take exception to such a course of action." For better or worse, history had proceeded for seventy-eight years from the time he had disappeared from the 23rd century, as well as nine more following the events with Picard on Veridian III. Simply returning the captain to the point in time from which Kirk had been taken presented too great a threat to the timeline.

"I do of course have another option, Captain," he said, his right eyebrow arching to accentuate the simple statement.

Kirk smiled at that. "I thought you might."


CHAPTER SIX

While it was not exactly like stepping back in time, Kirk decided as he finished pulling on new Starfleet uniform, it was pretty damned close.

His quarters on the Enterprise had been restored almost to the way they had been up to the last night he had spent aboard the vessel, just prior to her decommissioning. His personal belongings had all been placed exactly where he had always preferred them, no doubt by Spock. On the small shelf near his bed sat the small collection of favored, well-worn books which had, at some point during the latter part of his career, become constant travel companions. He smiled as his eyes lingered on the large, leather-bound edition of A Tale of Two Cities that Spock had once given him as a birthday gift.

The best of times, the worst of times, Kirk mused. Ironic, he decided, considering where he had been, how he had gotten there, and what had happened to him afterward.

A pair of dueling pistols from his antique firearms collection was mounted on the bulkhead near the door. Perched on one corner of his desk was a brass and wood sextant, a device used centuries ago on Earth sailors in order to navigate by the stars, which Spock had presented it to him on the eve of their return to Earth. Kirk figured that the Vulcan must have retrieved it from his apartment after word of his supposed demise aboard the Enterprise-B.

Oddly, it was only now that he wondered what might have happened to the rest of his personal effects. Presumably, they had been distributed to friends and those few remaining members of his family in accordance with his will. To his own surprise, he was unsure how to react to that notion, if at all. Early in his career, Kirk had forsaken the need for such possessions, preferring instead to travel lightly in order to more efficiently travel to wherever Starfleet and fate might send him.

As he had grown older, however, he had come to appreciate the emotional balance such mementos could provide, as well as the impetus for introspection, if he would only let them. Most of the keepsakes recalled happier moments from his life, while an equally precious few served to remind him of mistakes he had made. Some might consider such a practice to be more harmful than harmonious, but Kirk had always believed it important to reflect on his failures as much as, if not more than, his triumphs. It was his way of ensuring that lessons learned throughout life remained active mentors rather than abstract philosophies.

Only one of his possessions held the power to spark such powerful rumination, and Spock had taken equal care to ensure that it now rested in its proper place on his desk. Reaching out, Kirk traced his fingers over the polished frame holding the photograph of his late son, David Marcus. It was the only personal picture he had ever displayed in his quarters, reminded once again that despite all of the missions he had commanded and all of the successes he had enjoyed, the son he had fathered with Carol Marcus remained his proudest accomplishment. It had taken him many years to understand that of course, a realization that had come far too late both for him as well as David.

You could have made things right again, Kirk reminded himself. Had he remained in the Nexus, he would surely have sought out his son, reunited with him and attempted to make up for the years of lost time. It could have been but the first mistake he would have rectified. Everything could have been perfect.

Of course, none of it would have been real.

And what of himself? Was he real? How could be sure? After electing to leave the Nexus, he and Spock literally had appeared in the EVA prep area aboard the Enterprise, their method of arrival still a mystery to him. What other effects had the energy phenomenon had on him?

What of his "other" self, the one who had left the Nexus with the other Enterprise captain to that planet, Veridian III, and later died? Had that merely been a shadow of himself, an "echo" as Spock called it? What if the real James Kirk had been the one to die, and the man staring back at him from the mirror was nothing more than some kind of temporal residue? Even if he truly was the genuine article, was he a whole person, or had he left behind some remnant of himself in the Nexus?

"Enough," he said, chastising himself and his reflection. The Nexus had been nothing more than an all-encompassing fantasy. Whatever properties it possessed, he was free of its influence, and it was long past time for him to return to reality.

Stepping away from his wardrobe, Kirk turned to regard himself in the full length mirror on the small closet door. While the presence of Spock and Scotty, along with his quarters and indeed the Enterprise-A itself had conspired to remind him of the life he had once lived, the uniform he now wore was more than enough to demonstrate how much time truly had passed. It certainly lacked color, with only the maroon collar of his tunic visible above the gray neckline of his otherwise black jacket. The straight lines were simpler and less stylish than those of his day, instead possessing a utilitarian nature he felt had been lacking in the attire that epitomized the latter days of his Starfleet career.

His fingers brushed over the arrowhead-shaped delta symbol affixed in its familiar position on his jacketís left breast. More than just ornamentation, Kirk had been surprised to learn that the pin also functioned as a communicator, a perfect melding of form and function. The rest of his uniformís insignia was understated as well, his captainís rank now represented by the four small pips on the right side of his collar. Without them and the communicator badge, there was little else to denote that what he wore was even a Starfleet uniform rather than some sort of civilian outfit, and he had not yet decided how he felt about that.

Progress, Jim, he reminded himself. Thereís been a lot of it, and youíve got a lot of catching up to do.

After acquainting himself with the desktop computer interface terminal in his quarters, Kirk had used the device to determine what had happened to his family and closest friends. He was thrilled to discover that he was still an uncle, though a few generations of nephews and nieces had been added during his absence thanks to his late brotherís eldest son, Peter Kirk.

He read with unabashed amazement how Montgomery Scott came to be living in the 24th century while looking only a few years older than Kirk had last seen him. It was with amusement and appreciation that he read of his dear friend Leonard McCoy, still alive at 153 years of age and as irascible as ever, and perhaps attempting through sheer willpower to outlive Spock by any means necessary. Reading about the rest of his shipmates had brought both joy and sorrow, his satisfaction that they had continued to contribute to Federation ideals long after his death mixed with sorrow that he had not been there to witness it firsthand.

Driven by insatiable curiosity, Kirk had next used the terminal to study information regarding the latest incarnation of the Enterprise. "Theyíre up to E now?" he asked while reviewing the extensive lineage of the Federationís flagship. His studies also had introduced him to that vesselís captain, Jean-Luc Picard. At first, it had seemed odd to be introduced in this manner to a man who -- according to Spock, at least -- he had already met several years earlier, but Kirk had been unable to resist the idea of learning more.

A remarkable man possessing of varied talents and interests, Picard had attained his first captaincy at an age even younger than Kirk himself. His list of accomplishments was as lengthy as it was extraordinary: First contact with nearly thirty different alien species; successful military engagements against enemies more menacing than anything Kirk had encountered during his own career; even acting as mediator to the Klingon Empire during a time of political unrest.

That last item, more than anything else he had read so far, defined for Kirk just how much time had passed while had been trapped in the Nexus. The Federation had gotten larger during his absence, or perhaps it was the universe that had gotten a bit smaller. Enemies had become friends, and new adversaries had arrived to take their place. Despite what had changed, however, there was much that remained the same. There was still a vast expanse of space to explore, filled with wonders -- and threats -- that defied imagination.

"I guess thereís only one question left," Kirk said to himself as he continued to regard his reflection in the mirror. "What part do I want to play in all of that?" The question was easily answered, of course. He had answered it decades ago, during those last frantic moments aboard the Enterprise-B.

There was only one place where he wanted to be.

*****

"Captain on the bridge!"

All eyes turned to Kirk as he emerged from the turbolift and stepped onto the upper deck of the Enterprise bridge. Young faces, none of them familiar, regarded him from the different stations, their expressions prideful and even somewhat awestruck. Spock and Scott were there as well, Spock rising from the command chair to face him while the engineer stood near the engineering station to Kirkís right.

"Well now, I suppose this makes it official," Scott said. The burly Scotsmanís smile was wide and infectious as he stepped forward, and Kirk even noted a slight watering of the engineer's eyes as he extended his hand, although they had already exchanged heartfelt greetings earlier. As if reading his mind, Scott leaned closer. "It just didnít feel right until ye made it up here, sir. Welcome home."

Taking the proffered hand, Kirk patted his friend on the shoulder. "Thank you, Scotty. Itís good to be back." To the rest of the bridge crew, who still stood at ramrod attention, he said, "As you were, please." Though the younger officers immediately responded to the order, he noted that there were still a few lingering stares and quick glances cast in his direction as they tried to refocus their attention on their respective duties.

"I trust your quarters are to your satisfaction, Captain?" Spock asked, standing beside the command chair with his hands clasped behind his back.

Nodding in reply, Kirk said, "Yes, Spock. Thank you for that." Shrugging, he added, "But you know me, I was never one to hole up in my quarters." He indicated the bridge with the wave of his hand. "I always liked it up here better."

It was the first time Kirk had visited the starshipís nerve center since arriving aboard. Part of him had wanted to savor the moment for as long as possible, while another had held back, unsure of how he would respond once he finally stepped out of the turbolift. His unease was almost exactly as he predicted it would be, with him feeling not at all comfortable with the near hero-worship several of the bridge personnel were displaying toward him. Kirk supposed they could not be blamed for their reactions, as their current situation had to be disconcerting, at least to some degree. So far as they were concerned, he was a page that had stepped out of a history book they may -- or may not -- have read in school.

He looked about the bridge, noting the contrasts between what he remembered of his ship and the changes that had been introduced as a result of upgrades, continuing the sensation of being out of place that began the moment he set foot aboard ship. Passageways and other areas that he could still navigate blindfolded now bristled with the latest in Starfleet technology, its sophistication rivaled only by the ease with which he was able to understand it. The consoles and workstations all reflected the latest advancements, offering far more capabilities and flexibility than anything which had graced this ship when he had last commanded her.

"As ye can see, sir," Scott said, "the old girl has had a few enhancements." There was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, one that told Kirk the engineer was having the time of his life with all the new systems and components installed aboard the ship."

Scottís comment was an understatement, Kirk knew, based on what he had already told him regarding the Enterpriseís refit. The vessel had been removed from its interment for upgrades, with the intention to return her to active service for use by a Starfleet stretched dangerously thin after years of protracted conflict. A part of him beamed with pride that Starfleet had found his beloved ship to be useful once again, even after all of these years.

To his right, he noticed a young Tellarite male seated at the communications station, who turned in his seat to face Spock. "Captain," he said, "we have received an encoded message from Starfleet Command, addressed to you." Rising from his chair, he held out a small data pad to Spock. "Iíve downloaded it for you, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant Krav," the Vulcan replied as he took the pad, and Kirk watched as he read its contents. When he looked up, his right eyebrow had arched and the slightest suggestion of a smile seemed to tease the corners of his mouth. "We have received new orders, Captain," he said as he walked to the turbolift alcove and opened the small storage locker situated there. Reaching into the locker, Spock retrieved a metallic rectangle that Kirk thought he recognized.

His suspicions were confirmed a moment later when the Vulcan held the bronze plate up to the bulkhead next to the turbolift doors and aligned it with a rectangular patch of wall where the paint was slightly darker than the surrounding area. Spock pressed the plate to the bulkhead, its magnetic backing taking hold and suspending the dedication plaque in its proper place so Kirk could read its engraving:


U.S.S. ENTERPRISE
STARFLEET REGISTRY NCC-1701-A
SAN FRANCISCO FLEET YARDS, EARTH
COMMISSIONED: STARDATE 8442.5
SECOND STARSHIP TO BEAR THE NAME

"...to boldy go where no man has gone before."

"Starfleet has granted this vessel special dispensation," Spock said as he turned to face Kirk. "The Enterpriseís commission has been reinstated, and it has been returned to the active service ranks under its current name and registry number." Offering Kirk the pad he had been carrying, he added, "Further, they have issued orders assigning its new commanding officer, assuming that person wishes to return to active duty, as well."

Taking the pad from Spock, Kirk stared at the device and the text displayed upon it. Unlike most of the orders he had received throughout his career, what he was reading now seemed more like an informal note from an old friend.

"From Admiral Kathryn Janeway," he read aloud, "Starfleet Command, Earth. To Captain James T. Kirk, SC-937-0176 CEC, Retired. You are requested to take command of U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-A at your earliest convenience. Upon acceptance of this assignment, you are further requested to report to Starfleet Command on Earth for formal mission briefing." As his eyes looked over the last part of the message again, he could not stifle the small chuckle that escaped his lips. "Whatever your decision, I hope youíll accept my offer to buy you a drink. I figure upstarts like me owe you at least one. Signed, Janeway, commanding."

"Admiral Janeway has a few stories to her credit, as I recall," Spock said, maintaining his trademark stoic manner. "Tall tales, I believe is the correct term."

"What do ye say, Captain?" Scott asked. "Shall we see whatís out there?"

By way of reply, Kirk smiled to the engineer as he moved past him and stepped down into the bridgeís lower deck, pausing next to the command chair. Running his hand over the chairís headrest, he found himself at a loss for words.

When he had retired, he thought this part of his life was over, that he was too old to carry on in this stead and that it was time for him to settle down, act his age, and face his own mortality with some modicum of dignity. Now, however, Starfleet was offering him not only his ship, but also a renewed opportunity to do the one thing he had always loved. They werenít issuing orders, werenít asking for anything in return. They had held out their hands and were now awaiting his response.

There was only one acceptable answer, so far as he was concerned.

James Kirk took his seat in the command chair.

"Feels pretty good," he said after a moment. Turning his attention to Spock, he asked, "Whatís next?"

Taking his place at the science station, the Vulcan replied, "Vessel status is fully operational, Captain, and we await your orders."

"Shall we plot a course back to Earth, sir?" asked the Andorian female seated at the helm console in front of him. Kirk did not yet know her name, though he noted the rank insignia on her collar.

Considering her question, Kirk finally shook his head. "Not just yet, Lieutenant," he said, a smile tugging at his lips.

The Andorian, obviously unsure how to react to her captainís response, was doing her best to retain a composed demeanor, though Kirk could see she was having a bit of trouble. "Sir?"

"Well, Admiral Janeway did ask me to return to Earth," Kirk replied. "She just didnít say when. The way I see it, weíve got some time." Shrugging, he added, "After all, Iíve got some catching up to do, such as learning the names of my officers." When the Andorianís response was to frown in uncertainty, he prompted, "Lieutenant?"

"Palin," she blurted out. "Helm officer, sir."

"Well then, Lieutenant Palin," he said, pointing to the viewscreen for emphasis and indicating the stars it depicted, "I want to go thataway."

The hapless lieutenant looked almost terrified for several seconds before she regained her bearing, after which she nodded. "Aye, sir." She turned back to her console, exchanging befuddled expressions with the human male seated at the navigatorís station to her left, saying nothing before going to work entering a course to...somewhere.

Kirk nodded in approval, casting a glance toward Spock and Scott, both of whom were watching the exchange. While Spock remained quiet and composed as always, of course, Scottyís smile was threatening to overload.

Only then did Kirk notice that the entire bridge complement had been watching him the entire time, transfixed on his every move as they waited for his orders. Now that he had made it, the young officers seemed to derive energy and focus as they returned to their stations. For Kirk, he could not have received a greater compliment. They were his crew, and though it was likely that their parents had not been born when he had last commanded a starship, they had unflinchingly accepted him as their captain.

It was a feeling of contentment that continued unabated even as Kirk felt the almost imperceptible vibration in the deck plates beneath his feet as the Enterprise jumped to warp. He wondered idly what course Palin had set, but admitted that, for the moment at least, he did not care. There would be time enough for that later.

After all, as someone had once said, it was not the destination that was important so much as the journey itself.

And some journeys simply were never meant to end.

To Be Continued....