The Road Not Taken
Character codes: R, T, W (AU)
Author's Note: This story takes place after "Parallels,"
the TNG episode where Worf keeps sliding from one timeline to
another after competing in the Klingon olympics. It takes place
directly after the episode resolution, in the universe where Riker is
captain of the Enterprise, Geordi LaForge has just died in an
engineering accident, and Jean-Luc Picard is long dead from the
Enterprise's encounter with the Borg before they reached Wolf 359 (a
battle that never occurred in this universe because the deflector
weapon gambit worked). Also, in this universe, Troi and Worf are
married with children.
Will Riker stood quietly, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes without focus as they surveyed the void of space that stretched beyond the observation portal. In his memory, he saw the bridge of the Borg ship. Glowing grey-white amid the vast array of scavenged technology stood Jean-Luc Picard.
Locutus of Borg.
"Resistance is futile," the flat-voice abomination announced.
"Fire," he heard himself respond. The word echoed across the bridge, resounding off the bulkheads.
Blinding light seared through the Enterprise. Alarm klaxxons began to shriek. For a single moment, Locutus looked surprised.
And then he was gone.
The Borg ship imploded. It turned to dust as they watched.
Despite Geordi's extrapolations, the Enterprise survived the catastrophic victory. Far from unscathed, less even than intact; they never-the-less survived.
All but Jean-Luc Picard.
The door swished open, a quiet sigh in the solitude of his isolation. He didn't need to turn to know who it was. Her presence was as familiar to him as his own. Graceful footfalls whispered through the carpet. He continued to survey his domain of endless space, even when she spoke.
"I thought I might find you here."
One corner of Riker's lips pulled to a smile. "You know me too well, Counselor."
"I know how you grieve," she returned gently.
Riker didn't answer for some time. When he did, his voice was studiously neutral. "Geordi was a good friend."
"Yes," she agreed. "He was."
Again, silence lay itself between them. It wore well on their friendship, easing tension rather than spawning it.
"How's Worf?" Riker asked finally.
"A bit confused. He and Data -- their Data -- had only begun to extrapolate on the quantum aspects of the incident, and suddenly it was over."
"But he's settled in now?"
Troi smiled. "As settled as Worf ever is."
"And the kids?"
"He read them a bedtime story. They fell asleep together, the three of them, visions of k'chak and t'l'mre dancing in their heads."
"I'm happy for you, Imzadi."
"Thank you, Will. That means a lot to me." She reached out and brushed his sleeve with her fingers. "And you?" she pressed.
Riker flashed her a grin. "And me what?"
"Are you happy?" Her fingers rose from his arm to his face. They rested gently against his beard as she studied his eyes. "Or has this day stained you with sadness forever?"
Riker sighed. "Some days you remember longer than others," he agreed, the admission a confession of sorts. "The days you lose friends." His gaze lingered in hers. "The days you lose love."
"I thought I'd lost Worf," she said quietly. "You brought him back to me."
"He brought himself back," Riker corrected. "With a little help from his friends."
"Friends," Troi mused. "He and I were friends in his reality. Nothing more than friends." She shook her head. "I can't imagine it. Can't imagine my life without him."
Riker turned back to the observation portal. "Too often, the unimaginable comes to pass," he noted.
Though subtle, the bitterness etched in his tone was unmistakable to one who knew him as well as she did. Troi watched him watch the stars for several minutes.
"This isn't about Geordi, is it?" she surmised finally. "It's about Jean-Luc."
Riker's shoulders tensed visibly beneath his command tunic.
"Seeing him alive again disturbed you. It stirred up old memories of Zeta Alpha II."
"My memories of Zeta Alpha II are not old," Riker informed her wryly. "I fluff them each day: take them out, fondle them, return them to their rightful place."
"I would have thought it would please you."
"It did please me," he returned too quickly. "It was more than I could ever have hoped for. Seeing him again, hearing his voice. I'd almost forgotten how much I miss him. How much I miss his wisdom, his calm."
"But?" Troi prompted.
Riker drew a deep breath and released it slowly. He weighed the silence against itself as he was wont to do when confronted with issues he didn't care to face. It was a residual from his first officer days, a poker stratagem that had lapped over into his command style and adapted itself admirably.
"But," he allowed finally, "it was also more painful than I could ever have imagined. Until today, I was secure in the knowledge that I did the only thing I could do at Zeta Alpha II. But seeing him alive in another man's reality ..." Riker's voice faltered, if only for a moment. "I don't know any more. Perhaps with different choices, that reality could have been mine."
"You made the only decision you could."
"I made the right decision," he returned surely. "But it was also the decision that cost him his life."
"He would have done the same."
"Would he have?" Riker turned slowly. His eyes found hers and locked. "Or would he have found another way -- the way his Riker found? The way I didn't."
"Don't do this to yourself, Will," Troi returned after a long moment. "It serves no purpose."
"In that reality," Riker insisted grimly, "I found a way to save him. Why there, and not here? Why him, and not me?"
"There may have been other factors involved."
"Other factors?" He snorted bitterly. The anger that had changed him since Zeta Alpha II flared momentarily to the surface. It flickered briefly through his features and then sank back to his soul from whence it came. "Other factors," he repeated wearily, turning back to the observation portal.
"We play the hands we're dealt," Troi answered. "And by the nature of the game, the chips must fall where they may."
"It's not enough." Riker stared through the endless glitter of stars. "Not enough to know his fate was different than mine, and for that, Jean-Luc Picard died when he might have lived."
"It's my understanding that fate doesn't take orders," Troi observed gently. "Not even from the captain of the Federation flagship."
"Go to your husband," Riker advised suddenly. "Hold him while you can. Hold your children. Hold your life, Counselor. Protect it with every last breath you draw."
Troi reached up to lay a hand flat on his face. "You're a fine man, Will Riker. A fine captain." She kissed him quickly and then stepped away. "Jean-Luc would have been proud."
"I'd have liked to have spoken to him," Riker murmured.
"Perhaps you will again one day."
"I'd have liked to explain," he whispered.
Troi left the room. Though he noted her departure, Riker didn't turn from the panoramic vista beyond the observation portal. Instead, he stood on the rim of forever, hands clasped behind his back, and stared into the deep forgiving womb of space.
And he remembered.