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Kirk stood beneath a hazy sky, feeling hazy himself. Around him rose trees and brush. A light breeze blew, causing the switchgrass to sway against the legs of his black uniform pants. The strong scent of Solomon's plumes wafted through the air, though in his mouth, he still tasted the tang of metal.
He reached his left hand to his lips, and his fingertips came away stained with blood. Kirk peered down at himself and saw dark patches on his crimson vest, and streaks of red on his long-sleeved white shirt and on his right hand. The material of his uniform had been covered with dirt and torn in numerous places. He struggled to recall what had happened and then did.
Soran. Veridian Three.
Kirk remembered falling, remembered gazing out from beneath the misshapen remains of the bridge that had crushed him and knowing that he had only seconds to live. He'd seen the flaming ribbon of energy, racing toward him and bringing the obliteration of space and time with it. The ribbon and the ruin had extended down to the planet, had engulfed him and Picard
Kirk looked left and right, then turned in a circle, searching for any sign of the Enterprise captain. He didn't see him, though, nor did he see the rocky desert locale where they'd fought Soran. Instead, he found himself once more among the rolling, wooded hills of Idaho, in the area where he and Picard had last spoken prior to their mission on Veridian Three.
Except that they hadn't really been in Idaho, but in some type of temporal nexus that had allowed Kirk to imagine himself there. Picard had told him that, but Kirk had really known the truth of it even before then. He'd ridden Tom Telegraph out here from his uncle's barn sensing that it had been the day he'd met Antonia, but also knowing that it could only be an imitation of that time.
Movement caught Kirk's eye. He looked across the ravine to the hilltop, to where Antonia sat on horseback. Beneath the filmy sky, another horse and rider ascended the slope, approaching her. Only when they arrived at the summit of the hill and neared Antonia did Kirk recognize the second rider: himself, dressed not in the clothes he had worn on that long-ago day, but in the black slacks, white pullover shirt, and crimson vest of his Starfleet uniform the same uniform he wore right now, though neither ripped nor coated with the soil of Veridian Three.
What's happening? Kirk thought, and with an absurdity he realized a moment later, he actually patted the front of his own body in a visceral attempt to verify his own physical existence. He reasoned that he must be witnessing some sort of reproduced scene, since clearly he could not exist both here and there or could he? Could his presence here, in this spot, simply be a later version of himself than the one right now appearing to meet Antonia for the first time? Could he be standing here minutes after he and Picard had stopped Soran sometime in the 2370s, viewing a period in his life that had taken place in 2282?
He didn't know. That hadn't seemed to be how the nexus had functioned before. In his previous spell within the mysterious region, he hadn't been a witness to events, but a participant in them. He remembered preparing breakfast for Antonia on that day when he had been about to break the news to her of his intention to return to Starfleet, and then having his change of heart and telling Picard about it. He remembered stranding Gary Mitchell on Delta Vega but not being forced to kill him; finding a different way of dealing with Apollo on Pollux IV that did not require the self-styled god to spread himself thinner and thinner upon the wind, until only the wind remained; sharing a birthday meal with his son as David turned forty; and living or reliving so many other events of his life, some old, some new, many modified in ways clearly born of his own desires. But this...
He began walking forward, in the direction of the ravine, and beyond it, toward the hill where some version or replica of himself even now had that initial conversation with Antonia. As he moved through the switchgrass, he realized that it had been from this precise location that he and Picard had departed the nexus to reach Veridian Three. What did it mean, if anything, that he had returned to this place when he'd been swept back into the strange temporal confluence? Had he even really left the nexus?
Kirk stopped, unsure how he should proceed. He had intended to approach Antonia and the other Kirk, but now he didn't know if he should. He looked to his left, then moved that way, until he stood concealed behind the foliage of a low-hanging tree branch. For now, he decided, he would simply observe, in the hope of gaining more information before choosing a course of action.
As he peered through the leaves of the tree to the top of the hill, Kirk could not help remembering the original version of this day in his own life.
After waking up and eating a light breakfast, Jim Kirk knocked around the one-story farmhouse for a few minutes. Clad in blue jeans and a gray short-sleeved shirt, he paced aimlessly through the few small rooms: from his bedroom on the right side of the house, past the refresher, down the short hall to the kitchen, out into the living room, and into the second bedroom, which he'd more or less set up as an office, though he rarely spent any time there. With his years of starship service and consequently the requirements for written and recorded reports to Starfleet at an end, he found little need for a desk or any sort of a sit-down workspace. He'd had a com/comm unit a computer and communications station installed when he'd moved in, but he almost never used it. During his first few months here, Spock and McCoy and others had contacted him a number of times, but he supposed that he must've made it abundantly clear that he intended to disconnect from his former life and keep to himself in the Idaho wilderness. At this point, after residing here for nearly two years, days would pass between when he checked for messages, and only infrequently did he find one waiting for him.
Now, standing before the self-contained terminal, Kirk leaned forward and touched a control surface. It responded with a buzz, and the declaration 0 messages appeared on the display. Kirk felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.
If you want to talk with Spock or Bones, he told himself, you can just go ahead and contact them. He could, of course, but what would he say to them? That he'd made a mistake in leaving Starfleet? He knew that most of his friends and colleagues had believed that very thing when he'd stepped down, and they probably still believed it now. But while there might have been some truth to that view, he also knew that it would have been a much greater mistake for him to have stayed.
Kirk didn't want to discuss any of that, though, and what else could he tell his friends about his current life? Each day, he tended the horses, then often rode or hiked across the Idaho hills, even during the cold and sometimes snowy winter months. He occasionally went into Lost River for supplies, or farther afield, to Blackfoot or Pocatello or Idaho Falls. Twice, he'd visited the lava flows and cinder cones of Craters of the Moon Monument and Preserve. Last summer, he'd tried his hand at cultivating his own fruits and vegetables, but had discovered that he possessed little interest in the activity, not to mention something less than a green thumb. Now as then, he thought that some Orion joke must've hidden in that last observation, but it still eluded him.
Leaving the office, Kirk walked back out into the living room. A sofa and a pair of easy chairs, all old and timeworn, formed a cozy sitting area about the hearth. The mantel and the two end tables on either side of the sofa remained bare, though, and no personal photographs or artwork adorned the walls not just in this room, but throughout the house. Since he'd come here, Kirk had done little to make this place his own. He'd brought with him several crates of books and personal, naval, and antique artifacts that he'd collected through the years, but he had for the most part left those items packed up and stored down in the cellar. Every so often he would descend the old wooden stairs and rummage through one of the crates to find one volume or another to read and usually to reread. At the moment, a black, leather-bound edition of Great Expectations lay on the sofa, a gold ribbon halfway through marking his place in it, but the book hardly qualified as decoration.
Kirk padded across the living room to the front door and opened it, knowing that he needed to take care of the horses. The spring had been exceedingly mild so far, and the dull sky more gray-blue than blue promised another cool day. Kirk grabbed his light-blue jacket from where it hung beside the door and pulled it on. As he stepped outside, he hoped that the sky would clear and that by the afternoon the mercury would climb.
Great expectations, he thought, but the phrase resonated less with respect to the weather than to his own life. On his way to the barn, he considered the classic novel, which he had already read several times before, and he suddenly faced a moment of self-revelation. Have I become Miss Havisham? he asked himself. Jilted at the altar, her heart broken, the Dickens character had subsequently locked herself away, spending the rest of her life in her manse, Satis House, which she had then allowed to decay around her.
And me? he thought. Have I locked myself away? Kirk had not been abandoned on the day of his wedding, but fifteen years ago he had watched as Edith Keeler had been killed. The death of the woman he'd believed his one true love had affected him deeply, and though he hadn't physically sequestered himself away as Miss Havisham had at least not then hadn't he isolated himself in other ways? After his loss of Edith, he had become involved with other women, and for a couple of them Miramanee, Lori Ciana he had developed strong feelings. But he had lost his memory prior to his romance with Miramanee, and in the end, he'd found that his relationship with Lori had been something less than healthy, something less than real. Yes, after Edith, he had become enamored of other women, perhaps even fallen in love with one or two, but in truth, he had kept the fullness of his heart locked away from all of them.
And now, he thought, like Miss Havisham with Satis House, I'm letting my uncle's old farm crumble around me. He knew he exaggerated that last point, even as he pulled at the barn's plank door and it creaked open in apparent support of the assertion. But while he hadn't let this place fall completely into disrepair, neither had he truly lived here. He had survived, but not lived.
I need to change that, he thought. He had no desire to go back to Starfleet, but he wanted to regain his equilibrium, to return to being the entire man with whom Edith had fallen in love and then he wanted to move past that. With a sense of determination, he resolved that when he returned to the house later in the day, he would bring some of his crates up from the cellar and dress the house with his belongings. He would also sit down at the com/comm station and contact Bones and Spock.
Feeling more positive than he had in quite some time, Kirk hauled bales of hay from within the ragged old barn and out to the corral, where he broke them down. Then, after cleaning and refilling the watering troughs there, he went back into the barn and checked the two horses he kept Tom Telegraph and Fellow Jacob for signs of illness or injury. After verifying their apparent health, he cleaned their hooves, then led them outside. While the horses ate and watered in the corral, Kirk mucked out their stalls.
Later, he walked Fellow Jacob around the grounds for a while, then let him out to pasture. He then saddled up Tom Telegraph and rode him out into the hills. There, he broke the horse into a gallop. The chill of the dawn had burned off now, the temperature rising nicely, and the rays of the midmorning sun warmed Kirk's face. Tom Telegraph's hooves beat rhythmically along the ground, accompanied by the whisper of the switchgrass through which they moved. As always, it felt good to ride.
Tom Telegraph moved well and seemed strong today, and Kirk decided to take him over to the ravine. He directed the horse into a moderately wooded area, and amid the trees and bushes, they picked up speed as they neared the meters-wide chasm. Kirk loosened the reins, leaned forward out of the saddle, and grabbed hold of Tom Telegraph's mane.
At the ravine, the horse leaped up and forward. As it always did, Kirk's heart beat faster in his chest as they crossed the wide gap in the earth. No matter how many times he had made this leap, it still scared the hell out of him whenever he did so again. A break in stride, a bad approach, a short landing, all could have spelled trouble for Kirk and the horse. But Tom Telegraph landed in stride and continued on up the rise on the other side. Kirk glanced back over his shoulder at the ravine, a last look at an old foe once more vanquished
"That was foolish," declared a voice.
Kirk peered forward again as Tom Telegraph reached the crest of the hill. There, in a saddle atop her own horse, sat a woman Kirk had never before seen. Tall and attractive, she had deep brown eyes, a Roman nose, and a wide mouth, all framed by full, dark hair that fell in waves past her shoulders. She appeared perhaps ten or fifteen years younger than Kirk, but the lines around her mouth suggested that the two of them might actually be about the same age.
As he brought Tom Telegraph to a halt in front of the woman, Kirk said, "Pardon me?"
"I said, 'That was foolish,'" the woman repeated.
"Oh, I heard you," Kirk said with a slight grin, naturally flirting with her. "It just seemed like a curious way to say hello."
"Maybe that's because I wasn't actually trying to say hello," the woman told him. She offered no expression on her face, and Kirk couldn't gauge the seriousness or lightness of her disposition.
"I see," he said. "You just wanted to administer a scolding."
"No, not a scolding," the woman said. "More a judgment about your poor horsemanship. I suppose I was just trying to protect a life."
"Thanks," Kirk said, his grin widening as he contemplated the number of times his life had been in far greater jeopardy than when he'd taken Tom Telegraph over the ravine. "But I don't think my life really needed protecting."
"Maybe, maybe not," the woman said with a shrug. "But I wasn't talking about your life. I was talking about the horse's."
"Of course," Kirk said, feeling the smile fade from his face. At first, he'd thought the woman difficult to read, but now her attitude seemed both clear enough and harsh enough.
"Look, I'm not trying to start an argument here," she said after a moment, her tone at least somewhat conciliatory. "It's just that I watched you ride at full gallop and jump that gulch. You must've seen it, and yet you didn't bother to pull up and examine it in order to make sure that your horse could make it safely across."
"We've made this jump before," Kirk said, reaching forward and patting Tom Telegraph on the side of the neck.
"Not today, you haven't," the woman persisted. "I've been around here for a while, so I know this is your first time out this morning. Which means that even if you have made this jump before, you didn't know if the conditions had changed, if maybe the gulch had widened, its banks eroded by the weather. Maybe you made the jump two weeks ago, but this week, it's half a meter wider. Your horse could've fallen and been very badly injured or even killed."
Kirk nodded as she spoke. "Actually, I was out here two days ago," he said when she had finished. "We haven't had any rain since then, and no earthquakes or tornadoes or other serious weather events. And before I jumped, I took note of the plank." He pointed back down toward the ravine, and the woman peered in that direction. "I actually placed that there myself as an obvious visual measurement of the ravine's width. When I saw it there, I knew that the gap hadn't grown."
The woman looked back over at him. A bit sheepishly, she said, "I suppose that's logical."
Kirk burst into laughter, surprising himself with the force of his amusement. The woman tilted her head to one side and looked at him with obvious curiosity.
"I'm not entirely sure why you find that funny," she said.
"It's a long story," Kirk said. Really long, he thought, since Spock had served as his first officer for more than a dozen years. "For what it's worth, though, I do appreciate your concern."
"Remember," the woman said, "my concern was for your horse."
"That's why I appreciate it," Kirk said. "This is Tom Telegraph." He brushed his fingers along the horse's mane.
"Interesting name," the woman observed.
"It has an old history," Kirk said.
"Well, this is Romeo," she said, gesturing to her own steed. "Also an old history."
Kirk nodded in understanding. "The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," he said, naming Shakespeare's play. Then, quoting when Romeo first laid eyes on Juliet, he added, "'The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,/And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.'" He leaned forward in his saddle and offered his own hand to the woman. "I'm Jim " He hesitated, not wanting to reveal his renowned identity. Too often, people judged him by his reputation and not by their own experiences with him. Still, he had already started to introduce himself, and he would not lie. "Kirk," he finished.
The woman reached over and shook his hand. "I'm Antonia...long pause...Salvatori," she said.
"Sarcasm?" he said. "So early in our relationship?" He also noted with satisfaction that Ms. Salvatori didn't seem to know who he was.
"Consider it a step up from scolding," she said.
"I'll do that," Kirk said, realizing that he felt an attraction to this woman. "I take it that you live around here."
Kirk blinked. "Uh, that was a question," he said.
"Oh," Salvatori said. "Well, then, yes I live around here."
"What do you do?" Kirk asked.
"I live around here," Salvatori said with what seemed like willful obtuseness.
"This conversation isn't going well, is it?" Kirk said. "Why do I get the feeling I'd have more success chatting with your horse?"
Salvatori shrugged again, this time with just one shoulder. "It's your choice," she said. While her expression did not change, Kirk thought he detected a hint of mischief in her eyes.
"For now, I'll stick with you," he said. "So do you live a life of complete leisure, or do you provide some benefit to society other than with your beauty?"
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Salvatori told him. "But I'm a hippiater." When he furrowed his brow at the word, she said, "It's an old term for a horse doctor. I'm a veterinarian, but I specialize in our four-legged friends here." She stroked the side of Romeo's neck.
"No wonder you were worried about that jump," Kirk said, motioning back toward the ravine. "You didn't want another patient."
Salvatori peered down the hill, her features tensing. "I hate to think what a fall into that gulch would've done to Tom Telegraph."
"Not to mention to me," Kirk teased.
"That jump was your choice, not the horse's," Salvatori said, seemingly serious again. She regarded Kirk for a long moment before working the reins and pulling Romeo around to her right, heading him away from the ravine. "Well, safe riding, Mister Kirk," she said.
"Wait," Kirk called, struck by the impulse that, beyond the attraction he felt for this woman, he actually wanted to get to know her. "You didn't even tell me what town you live in." Although this section of Idaho remained only moderately populated, a number of towns and small cities spread across the hills and plains within riding distance.
Salvatori peered back over her shoulder at Kirk. "No," she said, at last offering him a smile. "I didn't." Then she took Romeo into a gallop and raced away.
For just a moment, Kirk considered riding after her. Her smile had given him the impression that, after he'd effectively proclaimed his interest in her, she had sped away as something of a challenge to him. He liked that. He liked challenges, but he also liked bending them to his own terms. If Dr. Salvatori did indeed practice veterinary medicine in the area, he should have no trouble locating her.
Kirk turned Tom Telegraph back the way he and the horse had come. It had been an interesting morning, and he found himself for the first time in a long time open to new possibilities and not only open to new possibilities, but anxious for them.
Halfway down the hill, Kirk urged Tom Telegraph into a gallop. Once more, they successfully leaped the ravine. This time, Kirk's heart beat faster not simply from fear, but from the memory of Antonia's smile.
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