Spock stirred, as he became aware of a sharp pain in his side. His gradually returning senses told him that he was lying on sharp rocks and sand. The fierce sun was beating down on him. Suddenly, fully conscious, Spock sat bolt upright. He scanned the desolate area. Obviously this was not San Francisco, Spock made the logical deduction - this was Veridian III. But at what point in time?
They were in a narrow gully of red rock and sparse vegetation. To the right, extended a shear rock face some 100 meters high and to the left, a strange metal platform perched on top of another cliff. Spock cautiously moved out of the gully and found himself in a flat open area. High on another platform dead ahead, stood a missile launcher. A narrow iron bridge spanned overhead, connecting one platform to the other. Spock's keen Vulcan hearing picked up the sound of voices issuing from the ridge to his right.
The first voice was one he had never heard before. "Just who the hell are you?"
Although he could not see over the high ridge, he knew that the second voice belonged to Jean-Luc Picard. "He's James T Kirk. Don't you read history?"
There was the sound of a scuffle, then Picard's voice again, "I've got to get to that launcher...."
Spock didn't wait to hear anymore. He hurried back into the shadows where Jim was beginning to regain consciousness.
It would appear that Q had been correct in his assessment of the time line. Kirk was removed from the nexus, and yet his echo remained intact. Even at the point of no return, Spock had been unsure of the theory, and yet he had still gone ahead.
But the nexus had failed to return them to the correct time line. It seemed that Picard had caused a rip in the fabric of the nexus though which Spock and Kirk had now fallen, arriving on Veridian at the same point in time as the other two men. If that was so, and Spock grew more convinced every second, they were in a great deal of trouble. The time line may be intact, but there was a new problem.
Spock's knowledge of the events that had lead to his friend's death was sketchy at best, but he did know that in a few moments, the essence of James T Kirk would die - history would record the event. But history would be wrong. Kirk's presence in this century created a paradox. There was no time to evaluate the ethics of the situation - Kirk was beginning to stir.
As the Vulcan helped him to sit up, Kirk rubbed his neck gingerly. "What hit me Spock?"
He was considering how to answer that question when his keen Vulcan hearing picked up the faint sound of voices from the platform above them on the left. Grabbing Kirk by the arm, he ducked behind a rock. Spock could not be sure, but he thought he had recognised Kirk's voice.
"Spock?" Kirk was rapidly regaining his equilibrium, and with it, his ill humour. "You nerve pinched me didn't you?"
He stared at his friend in disbelief. "Captain - you must be silent. We cannot risk detection."
"Detection?... from whom?"
" Jim, please be quiet, or I will be forced to render you unconscious again."
Kirk's hand flew back to his neck again, but the threat had the desired effect. The captain crouched beside his friend and looked around. Once, as a child, Jimmy Kirk and his brother Sam had gone camping with their father in Arizona. The red dusty terrain and scrubby plants made Kirk wonder if he was back there now. He glanced at Spock. His old friend had some explaining to do when this was over.
The Vulcan seemed to be listening intently to the faint sounds of a struggle in the region of the overhead platform. Kirk wished he had the advantage of ears designed to pick up sounds in the thin air of a desert planet. Then a spray of loose rocks and shingle dislodged itself from overhead and showered down on the two men.
Kirk shaded his eyes and stepped back from the rock wall to get a glimpse of the action. Spock stood rooted to the spot, his eyes locked on his friend's face. He watched as curiosity was replaced by shock, then confusion, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kirk had recognised one of the antagonists. Kirk let his hands drop to his sides and shifted his gaze from the incredible events above, to the Vulcan's face.
Suddenly there was the sound of a fist connecting with a jaw, and a white haired, black clad man tumbled backwards over the cliff face. Kirk leapt back into the gully and pressed himself against the rock wall. He waited for the distinctive thump of a body hitting the ground, but it didn't come.
Spock peered cautiously around the cliff. Dr Soran was dangling high above him from a length of rope. As he watched, Soran produced a control pad and aimed it at the missile launcher. A cloaking field sprung up around the device.
Spock tried to make out the conversation now coming from his left, but the voices were too faint. The rope supporting Soran suddenly slipped, and the control pad fell from his hands. It clattered down the cliff, and finally settled on the narrow, iron bridge high above Spock's head.
Spock backed into the gully a few steps and turned to look at Kirk. Jim was glaring at him angrily. "That was me up there wasn't it?"
"Jim I cannot explain this to you fully - the situation is somewhat desperate, and we are not meant to be here."
"That explanation will suffice. It is imperative that we do nothing to alter the time-line. Will you trust me?"
Jim regarded his friend steadily. There was no one in the Universe he trusted more. He nodded.
Suddenly they could hear the sound of footsteps running over the metal bridge. Spock mentally reviewed the data he had on the circumstances of Kirk's death, and knew that the moment was near. Jim had moved to the edge of the gully and was watching intently as a mirror image of himself pounded over the bridge.
A bolt of green energy flared from somewhere to his left, and hit the bridge, causing his doppelganger to falter. He gasped, and only the Vulcan's hand, firmly clamped onto his arm, prevented him from running forward.
Another bolt of green sheared the bridge in half. Still anchored at both ends, it collapsed in the middle, and the other Kirk began to slide slowly towards the edge. Somehow he managed to hold on, and even began to crawl back up. The metal rivets anchoring the bridge were screaming in protest, and the whole structure swayed alarmingly.
Jim felt every muscle in his body tense at the spectacle overhead. He could feel Spock trying to pull him back into the gully, but he was firmly rooted to the spot.
"Jim, we must take cover," the Vulcan hissed in his ear. The Captain's eyes snapped around to meet Spock's and saw something flicker in them. Sympathy? He frowned. Then a movement on the bridge caught his attention and he turned back.
Another man, dressed strangely in black and red, had appeared, and was offering the mirror Kirk his hand. For a moment, it didn't look like he was going to make it, but with a super human effort, he finally locked his hand around Kirk's wrist.
Then the two men stood at the other side of the now wrecked bridge and scanned the horizon. The strangely dressed one glanced back at the bridge, "We're running out of time. Look - the control pad, its still on the other side."
"I'll get it - you go for the launcher."
Picard shook his head slowly "No, you'll never make that yourself - we have to work together."
"We are working together - trust me."
The strangely dressed man smiled and nodded at Kirk. "Good luck Captain."
"Call me Jim."
In the gully below, Jim turned back to his friend and whispered, "Who is that?"
"Captain Jean-Luc Picard."
"I don't recognise the uniform. Is he Starfleet? What ship is he with?"
Spock hesitated. If he took the time to explain the situation to Kirk, perhaps he could distract his friend from what was about to happen. He took a deep breath, but Kirk raised his hand, "Never mind. I'm sure it's a long story, and one I'm looking forward to hearing - later."
Jim turned back and watched, as his double reached the destroyed central section of bridge. He stood gazing calmly at the control pad, as if it were right in front of him and not some five feet away, on the other side of a dangerously listing bridge. He braced himself as best he could, and took several deep breaths, trying to focus his energy on the task.
Then he leaped, and below him, Jim knew with bone-deep certainty, that he wasn't going to make it. But he did - just. Jim let out the breath he had been holding in a whoosh. High above him, Kirk's legs dangled over the edge, but he had a firm grasp of the bridge.
Suddenly the noise of shearing metal became almost ear splitting, and Jim watched as the rivets holding the structure began to give way. The control pad shook free, and hurtled towards Kirk who grabbed it, leaving him only one hand to hold on with. He swung himself round and aimed the device at the launch site.
Jim found himself mentally cheering as the missile sparkled into existence, but his relief was short lived. The bridge finally shook itself free from its moorings. Only Spock's lightning reflexes saved him, as the metal structure hurtled down towards them.
As the swirling dust began to settle, Spock realised that Kirk was running towards the fallen bridge. "No Jim don't...."
The Captain stopped at the pile of mangled wreckage, and stared in horror at the figure trapped within it. Spock appeared at his side but Jim could not tear his gaze away from the grisly sight. Blood trickled steadily from the mirror image of his own mouth.
He felt the Vulcan's hand come to rest gently on his shoulder. "We should go."
Dr Soran's voice shouted loudly from somewhere ahead, "Picard... get away from that launcher... NOW."
Kirk stumbled backwards unable to make his suddenly weak legs obey his minds command, but Spocks' steady strength reached out to sustain him. "No man should witness his own death Jim. I am sorry."
Then both men were violently hurled to the ground by the shock wave from a huge explosion. Spock, recovering quickly, pulled Kirk to his feet and dived behind a large rock.
High above them, Captain Jean-Luc Picard reached the top of the ridge and gasped. The bridge on which he had left Kirk was lying at the foot of the gully, a twisted, mangled wreck. Picard hurriedly began his descent, hoping blindly that Kirk was alive. A small and coldly logical voice in the back of his mind warned - no man could survive a fall like that - not even the living legend.
Now at the foot of the gully, Picard desperately peered into the wreckage and felt his breath catch in his throat. Even as he pulled some of the twisted metal free, he knew he was too late. Kirk's eyes fluttered open, and he even managed a small smile. "Did we - do it? Did we - make - a difference?" he whispered.
Picard knew then, that there was no way he could save this man. Before his very eyes, James T Kirk was dying, and there was nothing he could do to make his passing any easier. Or maybe there was, "Oh yes, we made a difference - thank you."
Kirk's eyes began to grow dim. "Least I could do - for the captain - of the Enterprise."
Picard tried hard to smile reassuringly at the bloodied face. He had to lean forward to hear the last words Kirk spoke, they were so faint. "It was - fun."
Suddenly Kirk's features slackened with the realisation that he was about to die. He seemed surprised. "Oh my..."
And the light in those bright hazel eyes went out. Picard felt his eyes prick with the sting of unshed tears, which he choked back with the greatest of difficulty. He sagged down onto his knees, and let his forehead rest on the cold metal. Behind a large boulder only a few feet away, Spock clutched at his temples, and tried to hold in the scream of anguish caused by the sudden severing of a deep mental bond.
High overhead, the Nexus passed by, a fiery blazing tendril of energy, a ribbon of light that lit the sky with orange and red pyrotechnics. Captain Picard, on the surface of Veridian III, watched its passage with deep relief.
And inside the nexus, Jean-Luc also sighed with relief. The vision of Eden had not vanished with Lien.
One thing about the Garden of Eden - there was no shortage of food or water. He had found a shallow pool at the base of a waterfall and thankfully slid into it. He sat now, half in and half out of the crystal clear water, picking at the core of that single red apple with relish. In his weakened state, Picard's imagination was running full throttle and he was sure that any moment now God would appear and cast him out of paradise.
But it was not God who appeared at pool's edge but Lien. He looked almost as haggard as Picard imagined himself to look which gave the Captain some measure of comfort. He dropped the core and watched it for a moment as the rippling water carried it towards the waterfall. Then it was dragged under by the current and vanished from sight. Lien looked out over the pool in confusion.
"This is not right!" he gasped. One faltering step brought him to the bank and slipping, he fell into the water beside Picard. He remained there for a moment, breathing hard before turning his confused gaze on the captain. "You should have returned to the cell. How is this illusion being maintained? Surely you cannot be doing it yourself?"
Picard allowed himself to slide forward until his head disappeared under the water. He came up feeling somewhat refreshed and even managed a wry smile. "I do believe you are having difficulty controlling everything Lien. If I may say so - you look a little tired."
Lien hauled himself and the still weak Captain out of the pool and clutched at the other man's shoulders. He had a look of a madman about him and Picard shuddered. He was well aware how dangerous that made his tormentor. He decided to tread carefully. Lien had released him and was staring at him in astonishment.
"You think you're very clever don't you Picard? Figured it all out have you? Well think again! You cannot escape me - this time you cannot just walk out of the nexus any time you like. This reality exists in my mind. It will not allow you to leave."
He sighed and seemed to waver for a moment. "You may as well keep this reality - drink, eat and grow strong again. I don't want you to die too soon Picard - not before I can find Kirk. You have a little longer to live."
And he was gone. Picard's legs gave way and he sunk down onto the soft grass, but he was smiling. He had just had several things confirmed to him. They were in the nexus, Kirk was missing and Lien was getting weaker. That gave Picard an advantage.
While Lien was looking for Kirk, he was here, resting and surrounded by food and water. His strength would come back to him even as Liens' faded. Picard had found something he had been lacking before - hope.
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