The Apples of Possibility
written by Emily Alward


"Why not try it? Part of our assignment here is to learn about the unfamiliar."
The young officer picked up one piece of fruit, a small lumpy ball covered with gray fuzz. He stared at it dubiously for a moment. Then he shrugged and handed some coins to the vendor.
"You're right," he said to his companion. "I'd still give half a month's salary for a sack of real apples."
She smiled at him, mischief twinkling in her dark eyes. "You'd better watch that lust for apples. Haven't they been getting Humans into trouble since the very beginning?"
"More likely it was pomegranates," he said lightly. "Earth has several versions of that story. Don't your people have any legends about the Fall?"
"Ummm." The serious look settled over her face again. Half-remembered stories from childhood flickered through her mind. "Nothing about fruit. There's a tale about falling into the pool of Isliat, which flows into different dimensions...It's not a story about sin, though; it's about possibilities. Even so, it's slightly frightening."
"Some of us don't buy the sin theory. Eating the apple is more a symbol for becoming Human. Realizing good and evil exist, our boundless curiosity-" He stopped, feeling awkward about venturing into philosophical depths.
A wave of acceptance and assurance flowed back from her. "I'm also half Human, sir," she said.
"No need for that 'sir' business. We're not in a line structure here. Can't we just be friends, Deanna?"
"Of course." She picked out a cluster of knobby brown berries. Nibbling tentatively at first, she was hit by a delectable taste that suggested sugared starlight. "They're very good. What's yours like?"
Will Riker peeled off a wide strip of the fuzzy rind and bit into the fruit. "Not bad. I'm lucky to have you along, to pull me out of my provincialism. We don't have to be back before the evening seminar, do we?"
"No. Let's see. I think there's a little park beyond the market. Would you like us to get sandwiches and have a picnic there?"
He nodded. They strolled along the aisle of booths, enjoying the confusion and exotic sights of Ultima Shedir's bazaar. Tiny cluttermice gamboled in a cage at one table; a cacophony of sound came from the harmonic-synthesizer booth. At a large corner shop, small holograms wavered in the air as the proprietor cut them to order to match customers' memories.
"Isn't it great?" Deanna Troi burst out delightedly. I'm glad they put the xenology school here, instead of on some cold starbase."
"Yes. It reminds me of the Vulcan saying about Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."
Will's hand moved toward hers. She froze. Too much attention to shielding her own emotions had made her distant even when she didn't want to be.
Or do I want to be? she thought. His question-"Can't we just be friends?"-stirred dangerous eddies in her mind. Deanna had many casual friends; people found her approachable and fun to be around. Very seldom did it go any farther. Her life was basically lonely. Most people feared her rumored ability to listen to their thoughts. It was useless to explain that such telepathy worked only fitfully and with rigorous concentration, and didn't work at all unless she found an emotional resonance first.
With Will it was different. She had felt that emotional resonance-on her part-the first time he walked into the classroom at this mid-level command school and took the desk next to hers. Like him, she was there for the training in xenology, but she also had been drafted as a resource person for the sessions on communicating with psychic races. He was the only person to approach her-it happened a mere two days after they first met-and ask if she'd be willing to help him feel at ease with 'the Human face of command.'
"Oh, I don't know if you need any help on that," she'd murmured, shaken by those sky-blue eyes. She said yes anyway; it was unthinkable to turn down the chance to know him better.
So here she was, becoming good friends with this ambitious, candid, incredibly handsome lieutenant commander, and not knowing where they were going with it. I'm not sure we can just be friends, she worried.
Troi tried to center calmly as she waited in the garden park. Will had stopped off to check via communicator with the planetary port. The Valiante, the ship he was being posted to as a brand-new Second Officer, was due at Ultima Shedir sometime in the next month. Naturally he wanted to report the moment it came within range.
She had learned a good bit about William Riker in the past three weeks. His impulsive request for counsel proved genuine; he was sobered by the responsibilities in his upcoming assignment. Deanna soon found that he intuitively knew the best way to approach most decisions. He merely needed a little practice at recognizing his own emotions, and at understanding why others' perceptions about a situation might differ.
They worked on this, but sporadically. From the beginning, sheer enjoyment of each other's company lengthened their meetings far beyond what counseling might have required. Exploring the byways of this crossroads world, they discovered they shared a curiosity about the exotic and the inexplicable. They laughed at the same jokes. Will's driving ambition was very different from her own quiet competence; his knowledge of the minutiae of everything from weapons systems to the way the Starfleet hierarchy operated amazed and baffled her, but what she didn't understand she still admired. Altogether Deanna found him the most fascinating man she had met since entering Starfleet. She had even, a time or two, imagined she was picking up his thought-pictures along with his emotions-something she'd been told was not possible except with another Betazoid...or at least another telepath.
And that's scary, she thought now. Because before long we're going to go in different directions. I can't let myself start imagining things...
"No signal from the Valiante yet."
She looked up to see he'd joined her in the garden.
"Oh, that's good, Will. I mean..." She stopped, feeling as awkward as a schoolgirl with her first crush.
"I know what you mean," he said with a slight edge of amusement.
"Well, then," she said, covering her embarrassment. "How do you feel, now that it's just a matter of days? You've worked hard for this promotion."
"I feel good. And, yes, Counselor, a touch uneasy, too, until I can actually get aboard." His rueful expression grew more serious. "Sometimes in the past, when I've reached for what I really wanted, it hasn't worked out...
Deanna gasped. Images of an unfamiliar place were coming into her mind. She put out one hand to steady herself. Will took it in his own. The scene continued to fill her senses. With a tingle of shock, she realized she was watching Will's memories.
An orchard stretched out over rolling hills, peaceful in a haze of summer heat. Birdsong muffled in thick leaves floated on the air. The trees were heavy with fruit-those damn apples again, Troi's mind noted irreverently. A little boy ran out. One arm was in a cast, and he couldn't reach the lowest branches. But he shimmied up a tree trunk, taking a long time to climb one-handed. Just as he reached for an apple, a woman's voice carried-
"William! Do you want to break the other arm, too? Come down right now!"
He did. He jumped down. He put his free arm out to slow the fall, and it crumpled at an odd angle. Troi felt the sharp jolt of pain, and tasted the tears he struggled to blink back.
Deanna, bewildered, came out of the link abruptly as the tableau faded. She looked at Will, who showed no surprise. Maybe he didn't even know she had intruded on his thoughts.
"Determined little kid, weren't you?" she ventured tentatively.
"Not really. I didn't see any reason not to climb that tree."
She had no chance to reflect on his nonchalance about this new phenomenon, because she was being caught up again in another memory.
Boats bobbed at anchor; a blue-gray northern sky brooded. He walked along the dock, a young teen growing out of last season's well-worn jacket, following a man who stopped at each quay and punched buttons on a hand-held computer. Shaking his head, the older man finally led him into a rickety dockside office. A battered appliance sputtered and flicked out two cups of coffee.
The man gulped down half a cupful and groaned. "Ah, Will, life's too short to waste it in a job like this. Joshing with small-time captains, checking customs manifests... One of these days soon I'll be cutting out of here."
The boy said nothing. He bent over his cup, sipping gingerly. The bitter taste sharpened a growing turmoil in his thoughts: Then what happens to me? I know looking after me is another job you hate...
Troi made no comment this time, just bit her lip. Her own childhood seemed unfairly privileged compared to what she had just seen. She didn't feel ready for the trust which sharing this hurt with her implied. She didn't quite believe it was happening either; she wanted to cry out to the whole spectrum of deities: Why him? Why me?
She was floundering, too, trying to speak to the traces of anger and powerlessness which still echoed from that forlorn boy. "But, Will," she said finally. "You have been able to reach what you want. You were chosen by Starfleet..."
"Yeah," he said.
Troi found herself jolted into another memory frame.
There was a girl in this one, Troi noticed wryly. Cute, bubbly and blonde, with the flawless complexion and simple classic clothes of a pampered daughter. She turned pages of a schoolbook slowly as she sipped a frosty concoction.
He dashed into the cafe, holding a message cylinder, bursting with news that he didn't quite know how to tell.
"I made it!" he said to her. "They took me."
"Why-that's wonderful, Will," she said slowly. "Here, let me look at it." She unrolled the paper, read it, frowned. "I always knew you could do it," she said. Her princess eyes glowed with a pride Deanna recognized all too well. "But now that you know you can, are you sure you want to?"
"I have to," he said tightly. "No one turns down a Starfleet bid."
"But you've always wanted to sail. Feel the wind at your back, pit your skills against the sea, answer to nobody but the Higher Power. Will, you don't have the least inclination toward the military life." And besides, you'd have to leave me-the unspoken part was loud and clear.
"Aw-Yeah, that's what I say I'd like to do. But I know it won't work out. I can't amount to anything sailing the backwaters of Alaska. I'll make myself like the military life. That's where the action is, according to my dad. And he's long gone. You're the only person around who'll even notice when I leave. I won't get another chance to prove I'm worth something, Tricia." And I'll lose you either way; your family already thinks I'm just a bum...His unspoken words, too, were clear.
Deanna blinked, and looked around the sunny garden. The sparkling stones that dotted the ground had lost their magic. The hum of insects pressed down on her. She wished she hadn't seen these particular episodes from Will's past; they placed too much burden on her warring emotions. Her own childhood, for all her dual heritage, had been every bit as protected as Tricia's. How could she have had so much love and security and him so little? Would she even dare open up her memories to him-assuming this new rapport was more than a fluke?
Will Riker seemed to accept her sharing his memories as just a side effect of her empath powers and their growing friendship. It could not have happened without his willingness to let her see them, she knew. But even so, only she realized how extraordinary it was. Certainly nothing like this had ever taken place with any of the other attractive men she had counseled!
She shook her head, still unsure what to make of it all. Will was smiling and opening up the sandwiches, the crucial memories pushed away. She returned the smile and resolved to be a cheerful companion for the rest of the afternoon. After all, it wasn't his fault he'd stirred up such a storm of confusion within her.
"Tomorrow night," he said as they left the garden. "Let's get together then."
She'd tried to cover all the options for this evening. Ultima Shedir had no organized nightlife, so she had brought in entertainment tapes to play if conversation lagged. She borrowed a three-dimensional chess set, and programmed four different modes of music into the room's sound system. A plate of fruits and cheeses waited on the window-side table. A flask of rare Dorani wine gleamed beside the food.
It didn't matter. Possibility wreathed the evening. From the moment he walked into her quarters, the passage from friendship to passion was as inevitable as the turning of the spheres.
They sat by the window a while, nibbling on the food and watching the planet's nightly aurora play across the horizon. Troi noted with satisfaction that Will reached first for the single apple she'd obtained at such an outrageous price. Conversation was a surface ritual. They tossed pleasantries back and forth as tension thickened.
He put his arms around her when she stood to pour the wine. She turned her face up, seeking his kiss. Her heart pounded in anticipation. Their lips met, and it was like drinking nectar after long thirst.
When his hand touched her breast, she sensed a hesitation she hadn't expected from this confident young officer. She held her breath, trying to understand. She hoped it didn't signal some well-hidden hang-up, dooming both of them to disappointment. Then she glimpsed the hidden emotion. He hesitated from fear that she did not want him as much as he wanted her. Relief washed through her, and she pressed against him in encouragement.
Yet her attention stayed suspended a moment more. Deanna was not without experience; she had played at games of love like all Betazoid adolescents. The experimentation meant little for one's later life, and she had always shielded her inner self during the encounters. Now, with this new rapport, she had to decide whether to shield again before the descent into passion. To lower her shields risked putting too much knowledge into the hands of one who might not care; it meant she might learn she was only an evening's amusement to him...
"Oh, yes, Will," she murmured, and opened her mind and body to him.
She floated in a pool of ecstasy. Many-colored vortexes swirled around her. Glimpses of a dozen different realms diffracted through their spirals. She wanted to take the slight stroke that she knew would carry her into one. She didn't dare to. This must be the pool of Isliat that opened up into different dimensions unreachable in ordinary life, from which the return was perilous...
"Take my hand," Will was saying in her mind.
She reached out, and together they plunged into a whirlpool.
They stood in the reaches of space, watching drifting asteroids and hearing the harmonies of Russo Five.
Pollen-laden winds battered them as they urged shaggy riding-beasts across a mountain pass, and gazed in wonder at the city of translucent glass below.
Two children skipped up to them, a beautiful girl and boy with Will's beryl-blue eyes and Deanna's onyx-black hair, and nestled in their arms while distant shuttlecraft streaked across the sky.
A worried crew took up battle stations as Will called out orders in a firm, calm voice and Deanna sent waves of assurance across the bridge.
The Bright Spectrum of Haven's deities enveloped them. They drifted through the equations of Earth's science, and almost caught a glimpse of the Being who structures the galaxies.
Deanna curled up against Will's chest, not wanting to break the bond in the tristesse of afterward. His protective arms told her that her fears had been unfounded. This had not been an adventure of the moment for him either.
"Marry me," he said.
"What?" She sat bolt upright, shaking. The sharing had been too much, too fast.
"You heard me." A tinge of humor carried in his voice. "Or is this just a notch on the bedpost for you?"
"Oh, no," she rushed to reassure him. "I just wasn't much."
"Take some time to think about it. A day...maybe a week. I may not look so good to you in the cold light of day."
"You will," she said. She pulled on a gown. The room suddenly felt chilly. She got up and punched a higher temperature into the room monitor, and then dialed one of the music programs.
Shock rattled her reactions. When Will said yes, he'd like to try a game of chess, she dropped three pieces while setting up the board. He joked that she was lucky her specialty was counseling, not navigation.
To close him out of her life, after this, was unthinkable. And yet-she didn't see any way it could work.
They batted it back and forth, as the chess match dwindled into stalemate. She talked to him seriously about her childhood. Her father had been a Starfleet officer, her mother an important heiress held on her homeworld by ties of custom and responsibility. They had adored one another. As a child, Deanna had enjoyed the excitement of reunions and the chance to be part of two worlds, but she had also seen the toll the long separations took on both her parents.
"Starfleet would assign us together. I don't see any problem."
"That's true," she said, wondering whether he'd understand her other worry. Official Starfleet policy, after all, was to recognize no problems in officers' private ties. "How could we square our feelings for each other with the demands of duty?"
"Others have done it."
"Yes, but I'm not sure I could. If I had to watch you constantly go off into the face of danger-"
"Then don't marry me yet. We can still be posted to the same ship."
"I don't know if that would be any easier," she murmured. Sensing the small current of rejection he was feeling, she sent out warm reassurance to combat it. "Look, Will, I want you very much. Let's just take a few days to think about it. Surely we can come up with something."
"Right," he said, and smiled at her, a smile that melted all her resistance.
As she lay in his arms after they made love again, the doubts returned. It was too good to last. If he was merely a technical expert, they could work things out. But Will was destined for leadership. To put him in a position where he'd have to balance the demands of command against a lover's safety...She would never have been drawn to him if he was the kind of man who could do so unflinchingly.
And underneath this conflict she recognized another one, within herself. She had always supposed she would marry someday. Her vague ideas had been based on Betazoid custom-usually a negotiated match, where telepathic contact built a smooth, functional household. With Will Riker, the promise was radically different.
The title of an almost-forgotten Earth book she read in childhood drifted into her mind: The Doors of the Universe...
An all-station alert clanged, startling her out of sleep. She reached groggily across the bed and grasped an empty space. Of course. Will had left sometime in the night because first report came early here.
Deanna stumbled across the room and tuned into the update band. Three ships were coming into Ultima Shedir, taking on supplies and assigned personnel in a hurried docking. The ships had been re-routed to the Griffin sector, where hostilities with a client system of the Romulans had suddenly flared up.
One of the ships was the Valiante.
She tossed on the first clothes she could find. She dashed out into the corridor. People thronged the hallways of the apartment levels, carrying bags of gear, shouting hurried goodbyes to new-found friends. Deanna Troi pushed through the crowd as best she could, apprehension rising in her heart. Last night, she had shrunk from the idea of watching Will go off into danger. Never had she thought it would happen so soon.
The ground level, with its offices and communications center, was even more chaotic. She had to pause and stand very still for a moment, to put up a mental baffle against the emotions churning around her. She worked her way across the building in a daze. Finally, she reached the transporter bay.
The harried young ensign at the nearest console looked up at her. "Which ship are you reporting to?" he asked.
"I'm not," she said. "Could you tell me, please, if the Second Officer of the Valiante has reported yet?"
The ensign frowned, but he punched some supplementary buttons on the console. "That's Lieutenant Commander William Riker, ma'am. Yes, he's already beamed up."
"Thank you." She turned and walked away, for once not even guilty at her lack of graciousness. Regrets were running riot in her heart.
How could I bring myself to say goodbye to him anyhow, after what we shared? she wondered. It's better this way. The thought did not console her.
Class sessions had been cancelled for the morning. There was no reason to hurry back to her quarters. She wandered out into the domed arcade, staring aimlessly at the luxury goods displayed there. After an hour she told herself to end her self-indulgence. She would go back, put on the uniform of a Starfleet officer, and conduct herself with dignity. I'm not the worse for this taste of love, she told herself. Someday warm memories will replace the bitter loss.
When she was in uniform and ready to meet the demands of duty again, a knock sounded at her door. She opened it up to find one of the local urchins standing there, holding out a small package.
"Ms. Deanna Troi?" he asked. "I've been told to bring this to you."
She thanked the boy, managed to find a small tip for him, and took the package.
Inside was a necklace: a delicate chain holding a single apple made of rare chromatic gold.
And a note which said:
There's another legend that's better.
Not Eve the temptress.
Lillith the partner.
She touched the apple with her lips and blinked back her tears.