Authors: Judith Reeves-Stevens,Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Space Opera, #Performing Arts, #Interplanetary Voyages, #Kirk; James T. (Fictitious character), #Spock (Fictitious character), #Star trek (Television program), #Television
Earth Standard: Late September 2295
Kirk knew his journey would be ending soon.
That feeling overwhelmed him even as he resolved from the transporter beam and felt the gravity of this world reassert its hold on him—a hold it had never once relinquished over all the years, all the parsecs, which had passed from that first time to now. All that had happened since that first time was but a heartbeat to him, as if his life were dust streaming from the tail of a comet, without mass, without consequence, measured only by the moment he had first arrived at this place, and by the moment of his return.
It had been twenty-eight years since he had first set foot here, and Kirk had no doubt that he would never do so again. He could hear Spock’s patient voice in his mind, blandly noting the illogic of that conclusion, given that the unexpected was all too common in their lives. But in some matters emotions took precedence.
Which is why he had returned. Everything was coming to an end.
No matter what Spock concluded, no matter how McCoy argued, Kirk’s heart knew the truth of that feeling.
This is the last time.for so man3’ things, Kirk thought, falling into the litany that had grown in him since his retirement. Soon Would come his last passage by transporter. His last look at starlight smeared by warp speed. His last glimpse of fleecy skies and Earth’s cool, green hills. He thought of the old song for space travelers, written before spaceflight had even begun on Earth. He was saddened that he could not recall all of it.
“Captain Kirk, we are honored by your visit.” The words caught Kirk by surprise, though he knew they shouldn’t have. The speaker was a young Vulcan woman, Academy fresh, standing at attention before the slightly raised transporter platform in the outpost’s central plaza. Kirk guessed her age as no more than twenty-five years Earth standard. He hesitated on the platform, thinking back. When she had been born, he’d been returning home. The first five-year mission almost at an end. An admiralty waiting for him. Kirk cast back to the memory. He had not gone gentle into that good night. His time as a deskbound admiral had lasted less than two years. Two years of going to bed each night on Earth knowing that she was orbiting above him, being readied for another mission. And each night he had known that she would not leave spacedock without him, Starfleet and all its admirals be damned. Kirk had been right.
V’Ger had come to claim the world and Kirk had beaten the odds again. As he always would.
No, Kirk thought. Had. Past tense. He was sixty-two years old.
McCoy told him he could look forward to one hundred and twenty, even more. But the trouble with odds was that you could never really beat them, just avoid them for a while. Spock would be the first to admit that, in time, everything evened out. That was one way of looking at death, Kirk knew, the inescapable evening out of the odds. The thought brought him no comfort.
“Captain Kirk?” the Vulcan began, a polite query in her tone.
“Is everything all right, sir?” “Fine, Lieutenant,” Kirk said. Even though he was finally, unthinkably, retired from Starfleet, a civilian again, however unlikely, the Fleet always remembered her own and this, his last rank, would be his forever.
He stepped down from the platform, hearing the whisper-soft grinding of fine red dust beneath his boot. He smiled at the Vulcan, and because Spock had been his friend for thirty years, he could see an almost undetectable shadow of emotion cross her face. Kirk blinked and looked again at the rank insignia on the white band of her tunic. He corrected himself: “Lieutenant Commander.” He supposed he should wear his glasses more often. But a lieutenant commander at twenty-five? Could the Academy really be making them that young now? Couldlreally be that old?
“May I show you to your quarters, sir?” The Vulcan nodded to indicate a collection of prefab habitat structures a few hundred meters away, assembled within a clearing in the ruins of the city.. u or whatever it was. A quarter-century of study by the Federation’s best xenoarchaeologists had been unable to reveal the purpose of this place, only that its primary structures were at least one million years old, and the age of its oldest structure was exactly what Spock had later surmised: six billion years.
There was a time when the significance of such antiquity had been overwhelming to Kirk. The central stones of this place had been carved and assembled before life had ever arisen on Earth, before Earth herself had coalesced from the dust and debris surrounding her sun. But now six billion years was merely an abstraction—a mystery he would never comprehend in his lifetime, just another fact to be placed aside, abandoned, with so many other unattainable dreams of youth.
“No, thank you,” Kirk said. “I’m afraid I won’t be staying long enough to make use of any quarters. The Excelsior will be arriving shortly to pick me up.” “The staff will be disappointed to hear that, sir.” Kirk noted that the Vulcan hid her own disappointment well, as she did her disapproval that Starfleet’s flagship had been relegated to providing a civilian with taxi service. That’s not how Captain Sulu had viewed Kirk’s request for a favor, but Kirk understood how others might see it.
“As you are one of the few people to have interacted with the device,” the Vulcan added, almost boldly, “we had looked forward to hearing of your encounter in your own words.” Kirk looked around the plaza, anxious to continue without further conversation. “It’s all in my original logs. I’m sure they Offer more detail than I could recall today.”
In what was, for a Vulcan, surely a near act of desperation, the lieutenant commander impassively asked, “Is there nothing we can do to have you extend your stay with us?” “No,” Kirk said. It was that final. In less than two months the Excelsior-class Enterprise B would be launched from spacedock.
Kirk wasn’t certain what was drawing him back to Earth for that occasion. He had no intention of ever again setting foot on a starship as anything other than a passenger. He still recalled too well the haunted look on Chris Pike’s face when they had spoken the day Kirk had taken command of the first Enterprise. From that first day, that first hour, somehow Kirk, too, had known that that was how his own journey would end. With the Enterprise, or her namesake, going on without him. Even here, it made him uncomfortable to contemplate that moment to come in his future.
There had been so much he had wanted to accomplish, so much he had accomplished, and yet the two never seemed to overlap.
Forty-six years in Starfleet, and his losses still seemed to outweigh his gains.
Kirk caught sight of a distinctive pillar at the far edge of the plaza. Floodlights had been set up on slender tripods around it, changing the dark color of the stone he remembered to something lighter. There was writing on it as well, intricate lines of alien script like the overlapping edges of waves on a beach. He didn’t remember having seen writing there before, but no doubt the archaeologists had cleaned away the encrustations of millennia.
“That way, isn’t it?” Kirk asked, already walking toward the pillar, knowing what he would find beyond.
“Yes, sir,” the Vulcan said. She fell into step beside him, her tricorder bouncing against her hip as she hurried to match his stride. “If I may, sir, as you know, it gave no indication that the conversation of stardate 7328 would be its last communication with us.” “And that surprises you?” Kirk interrupted. He picked up the pace before she could answer. He felt he was swimming in sensations—the taste of the bone-dry air that drew the moisture from his lungs, the lightness of the gravity, the slight reediness of sound distorted by the thin atmosphere. He was thirty-four again, filled with purpose, pushing eagerly at the edge of all the boundaries that encompassed him.
“Surprise connotates an emotional response,” the Vulcan said primly, “which has no place in a scientific investigation.” Her response, all too predictable, wearied him. Such earnest-ness was best served by youth. Let her devote the next four decades of her life to this mystery if she would. Kirk no longer had that luxury. u ‘Instead,” she continued, “it could be said we were perplexed by its silence, especially in light of the conversations you reported with it, and its apparent willingness to answer any—” “Yes, fine, very good, Lieutenant Commander.” Kirk let the sharp words spill out of him, anything to have her stop talking. “If I could just have a few moments…” He sensed her falter beside him and he walked on, alone, past the pillar and the floodlights, around a fallen wall, a tumble of columns, and—yes!—there—right where he remembered it.
Right where it had remained through all these years, haunting him, forever haunting him, just as its name had foretold. The Guardian of Forever.
A large, rough-hewn torus, three meters in diameter. A repository of knowledge. A passageway into time. Its own beginning and its own ending. A mystery. Perhaps, the mystery.
Kirk paused and gazed upon the Guardian. Like the pillar, its color was different, changed by the floodlights that ringed it.
There were sensor arrays nearby as well, sheets of gleaming white duraplast on the ground around it to keep the soil from being disturbed by the many scientists who toiled to learn its secrets.
Kirk gazed upon the Guardian, and remembered.
.4 question. Since before ),our sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question.
Those had been the first words the Guardian had spoken to him. An investigation of temporal distortions had brought the Enterprise to this world. McCoy had accidentally injected himself with an overdose of cordrazine and in fleeing his rescuers had passed through the Guardian into Earth’s past. There he had changed history so that the Federation never arose, so that the
Entelj2rise no longer flew through space, so that Kirk and Uhura and Spock and Scott were trapped in this city, on the edge of forever, with their only chance of restoring the universe they knew waiting in the past.
Kirk closed his eyes, the cruel memories still alive within him.
The universe had been restored. The Enterprise returned to him. And the price had only been the death of one woman. The one woman he had truly loved.
Her name formed on his lips.
“Edith,” he whispered.
Kirk knew the Vulcan would hear him, but he no longer cared.
Caring was for youth, and at this moment, Kirk felt as old as the stones of this place.
He walked across the ruddy soil until he came to the duraplast sheets. A permanent static charge repelled the dust and kept the sheets clean. His boot heels clicked across their hard, slick surface. He heard the Vulcan follow.
Now, no more than a meter from it, Kirk stopped to study the mottled surface of the Guardian. It had glowed when it spoke so many years ago, pulsing with an inner energy no one had ever been able to trace to a source, just as they had been unable to replicate whatever mechanism had initially allowed the Guardian to act as a gateway through time. The most detailed sensor scans possible consistently reported that the Guardian was no more than a piece of granitic rock, hand-carved, and that was all.
“Perhaps you could ask it something, sir,” the Vulcan suggested, after a moment of respectful silence.
There were a thousand questions Kirk could think to ask.
Perhaps that was why he had returned. But for now, none seemed worth asking.
“Do you really think it would do any good?” he asked. He glanced behind him and saw the Vulcan staring intently at the Guardian, as if that simple question asked in a familiar voice might stir the intelligence locked within the stone.
“The Vulcan Science Academy spent years in conversation with the Guardian, sir. It offered virtually infinite knowledge, ours for the mere asking. But—” Kirk held up his hand to stop her. He knew the story. The
Guardian did claim to be the repository of infinite knowledge, present, past, and future. But it seemed that there were inherent limitations to the languages of the Federation and the minds of the scientists who had engaged the Guardian in conversation. Too many times the Guardian had said it was unable to respond until a more precise question had been asked, yet it provided no clues a> to how particular questions might be framed more precisely.
A human scientist had summed up eight years of frustrated
-esearch by equating the total of recorded conversations between the Guardian and humans to an exchange that might be expected between a human and dogs. The smartest, non-genetically engineered dogs might have a vocabulary of five hundred words, and comprehend a handful of actions and even abstract concepts such as direction and the duration of short periods of time. But what about the other hundred thousand words a dog’s master could use? What hope did a dog have of understanding its master’s philosophy and biochemistry and multiphysics? How could a dog even attempt to respond to its master in the human’s own spoken words? It was frustrating and humbling for humans to be relegated to the status of mute animals, knowing no way to reach up to the Guardian.