And Though I Walk

The holodeck doors shut behind him, removing from view the concerned face of his second officer, the characteristic hum/thud sounding a knell to any doubts he might have about the wisdom of this venture.

The sheer cliff face mocked him, towering a neck- stretching distance into the simulated sky.

No company this time, and if his orders had been obeyed, no safeguards. "Computer, status report please."

The computer replied in its usual pleasant voice. " Program is rock climb, difficulty level ten. Holodeck safeguards inactive on order of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, confirmed by Lieutenant Commander Data. Warning. Warning . Attempting this program without safeguards has a risk factor of seventy five. You are advised....."

" Computer, that will be enough. Thank you."

Picard glanced down at his form-fitting climbing suit and almost regretted the lack of a uniform hem to tug. Instead he strode forward and started to examine the cliff. He knew it was possible to free climb this face. Twenty- five years ago he had done it twice, then given up rock climbing. He had thought he had understood the challenge.

Jason had changed his ideas about that, as he had changed him in so many ways. He still felt so bereft and ashamed. His first reaction when Beverly had revealed the truth to him had been relief. Even though the emotion that had followed had been disappointment, almost sorrow, he could not forgive himself for the relief.

The separate, analytic part of his mind found the route. Picard stepped forward, embraced the rock with an intimacy born of experience, driven by desperation.

He launched himself upwards, fingers finding cracks to cling to, legs powering his vertical ballet, the rhythm the rock imposed dictating its own oncentration.

Muscles exercised with disciplined regularity revelled in the movement, the forgotten pull on shoulders and thighs, the constant fight against the gravity that wanted to pluck him from his decision and dash him on the rocks of his despair.

Sweat trickled into his eyes and stung him into thinking about the future.

Without family. Without friends. Without even his dignity as Irimadic Syndrome robbed him of his mind.

Too much loss in too little time. Even Ro. His mind flinched away from that betrayal. Virtual son and virtual daughter, lost to him through choice and circumstance.

He paused in his climb, on a ledge two inches wide with a crack to thrust a fist into, and leaned back at an improbable angle scouting ahead, looking for a way round an ominous bulge. The muscles in his thigh twitched minutely as he rested, reminding him of his lack of recent climbing .

Decision made he swung across the face, adhering to minute imperfections in the rock, some of his holds more imaginary than real, sustained by momentum alone, heading for the fault he had spotted transversing the bulge.

The moment of truth: under the overhang he had to trust to his arms alone, swinging from grip to grip, suspended over the emptiest of clear mountain air. As he swung his legs up to brace for the final boost over the top of the obstruction, he caught sight of the void beneath him. For a sickening moment it looked so inviting. It was an answer of sorts, the end of all questions, peace for the peacemaker.

" Not...yet...I....think."

He grunted with the effort and sprawled onto the platform formed by the overhang, his breath harsh in the mountain quiet, his arms on fire from the exertion. Rock fragments disturbed by his scramble cascaded off the ledge. He could hear the faint tinkling sound as they rattled against the cliff on their way down.

He rolled on his back and looked into the sky. Wispy white clouds spilled over the top of the face and blew away in the updraft, shredded and curled like smoke. In the clear air away from the cliff a lone bird rode the thermals. Picard smiled.

" Nice programming. I like birds."

A kind of peace started to fill him, part physical, part emotional.

Life called him again and he carefully stood up, the future he had been almost prepared to throw away worth more than oblivion, for now.

He took stock, gently rotated his shoulders, flexed his knees, centered himself for the final climb. No rest stops on this last face, the top beckoned, shrouded in mist. A memory skittered across his mind. Slippery those last few yards.

Up again, wedded to the rock, hand then foot, move flowing into move. Concentration freed his mind again; thoughts drifted unconnected. Pain blossomed in his shoulder, triggering a memory of pain endured under the Cardassians. Pain endured and even welcomed after the Borg. Pain from Q's demonstration of his future.

He remembed watching Beverly walk out of his life, ending their marriage when the jealous fits brought on by the Syndrome provoked her beyond even her patience. Then he had suffered pain so acute, and so denied, that he had refused to see her, to answer her calls, to let her back even a little so that he could hurt again. That pain had meant that they had met awkwardly, as strangers, on the bridge of her ship.

His humiliation had been complete.

He felt moisture on his face, and licked at a drop that fell in his mouth. Searched for the next hold as he let some of the emotion of that life drain out of him. Already the future had been changed, the time rift didn't exist in this universe. He wondered if he could allow himself to hope that other things might be different.

The top loomed, the mist that obscured his way now more climatic than emotional. His concentration deepened, a fault deeply scarred the face of the cliff near his head. Pushing up with hands and feet he slipped into the crack. It was just wide enough to accommodate him. He squinted up its vertical walls.

Above his head the cleft deepened until it formed a chimney like tube, the patch of blue sky visible at the top shining like a beacon leading to the last climb. Taking a deep breath he started up again. Each time he hitched himself up, braced between neck and ankle, his shoulder screamed at him. Between his feet the ground, so far away it looked unreal. Temptation plucked with fingers of exhaustion, self doubt wormed at his resolution. He wondered for an instant what he thought he was doing, who he was trying to prove his ability to. No amount of determination would give him back his youth, his strength, his innocence. What he needed was a future.

Out of the chimney he reached for the last of the handholds, stretched with trembling fingers for salvation, and was almost startled off the cliff face as his wrist was grasped by the hand of another.

He looked up, and met Beverly Crusher's eye. Her wiry strength, surprising in such a slight figure, tugged him from the abyss with a confidence that he could only be grateful for. She let him go once he was safely over the lip, moved a conservative distance from the edge, then sat, still roped to a couple of well driven pitons, and looked at the view. In silence.

Picard gasped " It's cheating .. to.. ask.. the holodeck.. computer... to...put....the... the top."

She turned her burning gaze on him, seared him to his marrow with a silent accusing question. A single tear traced its path down the perfect curve of her cheek, dripped unheeded from her jaw and was replenished by another.

Picard supine, finally regaining his breath and ability to move, watched the liquid progress with a sort of fatalism.

" How did you find out ?" he asked eventually. " I asked Data to keep it to himself. "

" If you could have seen the state he was in when I tracked him down, you would be ashamed of yourself."

Picard grimaced and looked out over the chasm. " He understood. It sounds strange but I really think he understood."

Beverly sniffed.

" Well he didn't tell me, he only confirmed my suspicions. You know any violation of holodeck safeties comes up on the Medical data base as an alarm. Geordi finished the recalibration of those new biospecific sensors an hour ahead of schedule and put us back on line. You were the only senior officer missing. "

They sat in silence for some more time. Finally Picard found some words. " I didn't want anyone else to know. I had some demons to lay."

Crusher's temper flared; she whirled round and fixed him with one of her famous glares. " For God's sake, Captain, what demons would be served by presenting me with your body? Haven't we dealt with enough bodies, you and I, that you had to risk adding to the tally? This.... " She gestured at the landscape in disgust.

" This was just stupid- adolescent and stupid."

Picard rolled up to a sitting position and rested his forehead against his knees. "Guilty," he murmured, but then he tilted his head so that she could see one of his eyes. There was an unmistakable twinkle in it. He

sat up straighter, and the smile that was tugging at his mouth became one of his rare grins. " But I did it Doctor. After twenty-five years. I did it."

Beverly looked at him with affection and not a little exasperation. " And ?"

He leant over towards her, grabbed one of her hands and pulled her to standing. " Now I feel like dinner. You ?"

Crusher brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked at him, a smile now tugging at the corner of her mouth. " Dinner will do. You drive me crazy, but I never can say no to you." She unclipped the rope from her belt and left the pitons where they lay.

He held out his hand to lead her out of the Holodeck. His final comment was drowned out by the swish of the doors opening, but she could have sworn it sounded like " I know."

Looking at his weary but somehow satisfied face she decided to let it drop. Dinner could well be interesting.

The End. Again.