Near Bajor, Stardate 55595.4
This wasn't the first time Jean-Luc Picard had thought Jim Kirk was crazy. But he was concerned that it might be the last. No one could survive what Kirk had planned for the two of them now.
"Jim!" The environmental suit Picard wore beneath his jump armor was alarmingly old, and he had to shout for the communicator circuits in the helmet to make his voice heard above the outside whine of thickening atmosphere. "You're crazy!" Picard never shied away from the direct approach if that's what conditions warranted.
But Kirk didn't answer. He kept his back to Picard, one armored hand nonchalantly holding the railing by the open airlock of the Ferengi shuttle as if the slender metal fixture weren't the sole means saving him from a fiery death. Beyond Kirk, one hundred kilometers straight down, the sweeping crescents of Bajor's vast Trevin desert slipped by, the edge of each sinuous curve crisp in the bright sunlight flooding the world below.
Picard knew that Kirk was transfixed by the vista. The two starship captains had once spent an endless evening in a bar on Risa trying to calculate how many different worlds they had each visited in the course of their careers. It had been an unwinnable competition -- so many worlds over so many years that the details of one blurred into the memories of another.
Still, Picard knew, despite all the years and all the memories, to Kirk, most assuredly, each new world would always be the first world, each new experience a gift to be cherished.
But to Picard, this particular new experience they were about to embark upon was one he would gladly forgo.
Picard slid his magnetic boots over the rough deckplates until he was within arm's reach of Kirk. He reached out and pounded his armored glove against the thermic-tiled pod that covered Kirk's back. Picard could see a badly worn safety inspection sticker on the pod. The date of the last inspection was marked in Cardassian script, and the Cardassians had withdrawn from Bajor more than ten years ago.
Picard tried not to think how long it had been since his own pod had been inspected. His trepidation only inspired him to make sure his fist came down firmly -- several more times.
That got Kirk's attention. But Picard's concern for himself suddenly changed to concern for Kirk as his friend let go of the hand railing to turn around and look back. Now the only thing keeping Kirk from tumbling away to a fiery death was the current in his magnetic boots. And who knew the last time those had been inspected or had had their lintium batteries replaced?
Acting instantly and instinctively, Picard grabbed for an equipment loop on Kirk's pod harness, to keep him safe.
Behind his helmet's faceplate, Kirk grinned -- quite irritatingly, Picard thought -- as if he understood what Picard was doing and found the act completely unnecessary. Picard begged to differ. The thermic coating of Kirk's helmet was a dark rust color, streaked here and there with carbon trails, which did nothing to increase Picard's confidence in the forcefield of Kirk's suit. The cobalt-blue base color of his friend's helmet also differed from the deep-yellow coating on the interlocking armor plates that covered the body of his suit, the lack of a color match indicating the helmet was not part of a set. But from the eager expression on his friend's face, it was all too evident to Picard that Kirk might as well be an ensign about to make his first Academy EVA in a fresh-from-the-replicator suit.
"Almost there!" Kirk shouted.
Picard could just make out Kirk's voice through the sputtering static that came over his commlink. The enthusiasm it conveyed matched Kirk's expression, but only added to Picard's profound misgivings.
"Jim," Picard said loudly, overenunciating each word so that at the very least, Kirk could read his lips through his faceplate, "I don't believe these suits are safe."
Kirk's first response was a puzzled expression. Then, seeing equal puzzlement on Picard's face, Kirk leaned forward to press his helmet against Picard's so that actual sound vibrations could travel from one to another. "They're the safest suits in the system," he shouted.
Picard shook his head, the easiest way he knew to ask Kirk what he could possibly mean.
"I rented them from that Ferengi on DS9," Kirk explained loudly. "He doesn't get paid until -- and unless -- we come back."
"Quark?" Picard said in alarm. He knew that particular Ferengi. Even more alarming, he had heard Will Riker's stories. "You rented these suits from Quark?"
Kirk nodded with a proud smile. "Very competitive rates."
"Of course they're competitive," Picard shouted. "These suits are very likely stolen!" To a Ferengi, recycling through robbery and resale was a time-honored practice for maintaining low overhead.
But Kirk didn't appear concerned. "Not even Quark would be crazy enough to risk crossing the captain of the Enterprise. Let alone two of them."
"You don't know Quark," Picard said. And you clearly don't know the meaning of the word, "crazy," he thought.
From the movement of Kirk's head, Picard guessed that his friend was attempting to shrug in his suit, though the armored plates were effective masks for any such action.
"Then when this trip's over," Kirk said, "I'll buy you a drink at Quark's, and we can both get to know him."
Picard waved Kirk's suggestion aside.
"Jim, my concern is that this trip is going to be over the instant we step through that airlock."
Suddenly, Picard felt his stomach tighten as the airlock pulsed with a flashing orange light and the pilot's deep voice crackled over the commlink.
"Attention my esteemed and treasured passengers, as your captain and jump master for today, it is my great pleasure to inform you that this fine vessel is quickly approaching the release coordinates with a truly impressive measure of navigational accuracy, such that absolutely no disruptive course corrections will be required, allowing you both to savor these final few moments before embarking on what I sincerely hope is a remarkable and fulfilling experience, the best that Quark Adventure Excursions -- which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Quark Trading Cooperative, though it has no fiduciary responsibility whatsoever in the event of insurance claims resulting from any inadequacy arising from personnel misconduct and/or equipment malfunction -- can offer."
As the pilot droned on mechanically, Picard became even more distressed. The pilot's muffled accent sounded Lurian, and the only Lurian in the Bajoran system as far as Picard knew was the hulking, oddly hairless, and insufferably garrulous Morn, who seemed to be permanently welded to a barstool at Quark's, warbling endless tales of his improbable adventures.
ardNow, not only did Picard suspect the equipment he and Kirk wore was stolen, he feared their pilot had been awarded this assignment only to make good a bar bill or gambling debt.
As Picard tried to dredge up some inarguable reason for why they could not and should not proceed, he saw Kirk turn his attention to the status lights on his suit's forearm controls. To Picard's dismay, they were all purple -- one of the Bajoran colors which indicated proper operation.
Then Picard realized Kirk was looking at him expectantly. "How're your status lights?" he asked.
Picard glanced at his own forearm controls and shuddered. Purple, every one.
By then, the pilot had finished rattling off an incredibly awkwardly worded disclaimer for any mishap involving "kinetic disintegration," even if deliberately caused by an employee of Quark's Adventure Excursions, and was already beginning the countdown.
"It is now my grand pleasure to commence your egress preparation timing, descending from that most auspicious number, forty-one, which is the Lurian Prime of Good Luck, which is certainly not to imply that any luck is required in the endeavor contracted for under rental agreement five-five-five-five-nine-four-alpha, nor with the associated equipment rental, said equipment bearing no express or implied warranty concerning its suitability for the safe completion of any task, including that for which it was rented, per the accepted practices suggested by the Ferengi Trade Bylaws, subject to the proprietor's sole interpretation."
Picard blinked as he processed what the pilot had just said. "Did you hear what Morn said?" he asked Kirk. "And why is he -- "
"The pilot's name isn't Morn," Kirk said as he turned his attention to his chestplate controls. "I think her name's...Arisa...something. Commercial pilot. Works for Quark."
Picard bit his lip. The only females who worked for Quark sold drinks and worked the dabo table. But he couldn't stay silent for long.
"Jim...was this Arisa by any chance a Lurian?" Trust Quark to distract Kirk with a pretty face, then switch the pilot with a barfly.
"Absolutely," Kirk said. "Big, wrinkly, lots of long hair? Never stops gabbing?"
Picard nodded dumbly, hoping intensely that their pilot was not related to Quark's perpetual customer. He had no wish to even contemplate how a relation of Morn's working for Quark had obtained her commercial pilot's license.
Kirk had found the manual forcefield activator dial on his chestplate and twisted it. Picard watched as the faint purple glow of induction plasma rose up to visibly define the limits of the usually invisible forcefield which flowed across the contours of Kirk's suit, about two centimeters out from its armor plates.
Picard sighed. Federation-style orbital skydiving suits hadn't used induction-plasma shielding for at least a century. Stolen and antiques, he thought glumly.
"I don't care who the pilot is or isn't," he said. "But she just absolved everyone of...of everything that could go wrong. And probably will."
"The disclaimer is just a technicality," Kirk said airily.
Picard couldn't believe Kirk was so dismissive of disaster. "She said there're no guarantees."
Kirk seemed to give another shrug. "There never are."
Most maddening to Picard, Kirk said that with a smile.
"Your egress timing will now commence," the pilot announced, her blithe voice barely comprehensible above the growing shriek of outside atmosphere. "Forty-one..."
"You'd better charge your plasma," Kirk suggested.
Picard preferred to wait. A plasma charge only took a second or two, and since he had no confidence that his suit's plasma generator would last for the full descent, he wanted to be sure he had the largest possible margin of safety.
"No hurry," Picard said.
Kirk raised his eyebrows.
"Thirty-seven," the pilot announced.
Picard tapped the side of his helmet, certain he hadn't heard correctly.
"You should really charge your plasma now," Kirk said.
"Thirty-one," the pilot's voice crackled.
For the briefest of instants, Picard wondered if they had somehow encountered a temporal anomaly that accounted for the nonsequential jumps in the countdown, and then Kirk's helmet touched his again.
"Jean-Luc," Kirk shouted. "Morn or not, our pilot is a Lurian."
At that, Picard remembered the Lurian fascination with numbers. The pilot was counting down by primes.
Picard quickly located the manual forcefield-activator dial on his chestplate, even as he ran through the primes between twenty-three and one, while also trying to estimate how many more seconds he had left to establish the plasma cushion that would provide secondary radiation shielding when he left the shuttle, as well as shape his forcefield's dynamic configuration during the course of the jump.
He twisted the forcefield dial. As he did so, he distinctly heard a new background hiss of static rise up in his helmet speakers as the plasma shield took shape within his forcefield, and distressingly appeared to interfere with his communicator. For a heartbeat, he felt himself to be one of those ancient daredevils who braved immense waterfalls in little more than a wooden barrel. Few of those idiots had survived, he recalled.
"And now, my personal favorite, and one that, I must add in the most positive manner with which I am able, has been extremely lucky for me...seventeen!"
The induction plasma covered Picard's faceplate, and beyond it, Kirk, the airlock, and sunlit Bajor took on a faintly noxious purple tinge. No longer visible through the charged glow, the flashing orange warning light seemed to disappear.
Automatically, Picard checked his forearm controls.
"No point in that," Kirk said, knocking helmets with him, as if sharing a joke.
Picard didn't see what was so funny. Looking through the purple tint that covered his faceplate, it was impossible to tell if the status lights were the proper color or not.
Kirk shifted to the side, giving Picard room to slide his magnetic boots to the open airlock, right beside him.
"Seven...switching off our internally generated artificial gravity..."
Picard grimaced as he felt the familiar spin of vertigo that accompanied the gentle lurch of freefall, while his suit's boots remained anchored to the airlock deckplates.
"Look at that view," Kirk marveled.
Picard nodded. It was wondrous, even if it was likely the last thing he might see.
"I think you're really going to enjoy this," Kirk said.
"And with the greatest pleasure, I am now degaussing the deckplates for the smallest whole prime of all, which is not the number one because of its special conditions, but the only number in all the universe which is both prime and even...two!"
In the split second before he felt Kirk give him a push to throw him forward, all Picard had time to think was: How had he let Kirk talk him into this? But all he could remember of Kirk's argument was that bottle of Saurian brandy and altogether too much encouragement from Will Riker, whose normal good sense had been seriously disrupted by his upcoming wedding to Deanna Troi.
And then the airlock was gone from his vision and Picard felt his body spun round by his suit's gyros, giving him a momentary flash of the stubby, orange Ferengi shuttle as it streaked away, docking-claws first, leaving Kirk's yellow-clad and blue-helmeted form seemingly hanging in empty space behind him.
Then Picard flipped headfirst in the direction of his long fall, and the amethyst haze before him deepened in intensity as his forcefield elongated into the proper aerodynamic shape that -- in theory -- would enable him to survive atmospheric entry without an entry vehicle.
Kirk is certifiably crazy, Picard thought as the first bumps of hypersonic buffeting began to vibrate through him.
Then, resigned to his fate, he asked himself, So what does that make me?
One hundred kilometers below, Bajor waited, about to give him his answer.
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