Picard comes upon Kirk cutting wood, outside a house in a mountain forest, near the moment of Kirk’s arrival in the Nexus. We discover the elements of his Nexus as he does: the house he used to own, a clock he had given away, a beloved dog who had died but appears alive at the door. As Picard tries to talk to him, he realizes this is the morning he tells the woman he intended to marry that he is instead going back to Starfleet. But he is feeling his regrets. When Picard asks him to help him stop Soran, he refuses, shocking Picard, and perhaps us.
At first he is flippant. “You say history considers me dead? Who am I to argue with history?”
“You’re a Starfleet officer! You have a duty!” Picard says.
“I don’t need to be lectured by you,” Kirk says. “I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers. Besides which, I think the galaxy owes me one.” The “one” the galaxy owes him is a life, with love and family.
Though his words are biting, and could even be said in bitterness, his tone is gentler, more ironic. Now he explains himself simply to Picard. “I was like you once—so worried about duty and obligation I couldn’t see past my own uniform. And what did it get me? An empty house…Not this time.” Kirk is determined to ask Antonia to marry him, and experience the life he didn’t have before.
But the scene changes, and Kirk is in his uncle’s barn in Idaho, about to ride off and meet Antonia for the first time. Picard saddles up and follows him. On the way, Kirk leaps a ravine, then stops, looking back. He rides back and leaps it again. By this time Picard has arrived. Kirk tells him that he made that jump fifty times, “and every time, it scared the hell out of me. Not this time.” It’s that fear that gave the experience its flavor, and told him it was real. Now he realizes none of this is real.
“Nothing here matters.” And so he makes another leap—from one set of regrets to another, from family to the one we saw was powerful in the opening scene. “Maybe this isn’t about an empty house. Maybe it’s about that empty chair on the Enterprise. Ever since I left Starfleet I haven’t made a difference.”
Now with his playful, open smile, Kirk faces Picard. “Captain of the Enterprise? Close to retirement?”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“Let me tell you something—don’t. Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you, don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship because when you’re there…you can make a difference.”
“Come back with me,” Picard says urgently. “Help me stop Soran. Make a difference again.”
But though Kirk has made his decision, he doesn’t adopt Picard’s urgent tone or earnest manner. Instead he varies his earlier line about history: “Who am I to argue with the Captain of the Enterprise?” Then he continues in this remarkable attitude. “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim?” It is so cavalier that it’s almost mocking—it’s so knowing that it almost takes us out of the story, but not quite—because this is Captain Kirk as we’ve seen him in the last few films, but maybe a little more so. No one else could get away with that line.
He relates this ironic self-knowledge that we’ve seen in the last several original cast movies to one of his Star Trek’s founding concepts: “You know if Spock were here, he’d say I was an irrational, illogical human for taking on a mission like that.” Then he smiles. “Sounds like fun.”
And there we have the key to Captain Kirk’s approach to life—his joy is in action, in risk and daring, for the greater good. In that sense, his Nexus is being Captain Kirk—and his past, present and future come together in this moment.