Ming entered the holodeck with anticipation. This was his third get-together with Karissa, and he felt like he ws actually starting to develop a friendship with the counselor. The incident with the pheromones still rankled him, and part of him was still responding to her. The 24th-century scientist part of his mind was telling him it was all biochemical; the part of his mind left over from the days when humans hunted woolly mammoths and painted stories about it in their caves was still insisting that he *must* have her!!! But physical exercise always helped to quiet that part of the mind. That was why Ming had taken up kung fu, and why he and Karissa were going rock climbing in the holodeck tonight.
She was waiting outside the holodeck. She wore long, black pants, and a forest green tank top. Her hair was pulled back away from her face and all around her was a pile of safety equipment. She was so involved checking everything over, that she didn't hear Ming come up behind her.
"Hello," Ming said. "I see you're ready!" Ming had decided to dress in traditional Tirolean garb--lederhosen, a white shirt, and climbing boots. He carried his gear in a sack slung over his back, like alpine explorers of centuries past.
She jumped for a moment startled as she turned to look at him. Her breath steadied almost instantly. As she took in his appearance, she smiled. "Nice outfit . . . " Suddenly, she lifted a bunch of rope and handed it to him. "Here, take these, please."
Ming grabbed the rope. "So, what program are we using?" he asked. The rope Karissa had handed him was a standard Starfleet line, about 100 meters long and half a centimeter wide. It was made of monofiber polymers and could hold the weight of a small shuttlecraft with ease. Ming had replicated traditional hemp rope for this outing, along with a steel pick and pitons.
"Devil's Cliffs," she said, "I modeled it after a real place on Tinarius III" What she failed to mention was this was the exact place her nightmare had taken place. She'd had the nightmare two more times since . . . "You shouldn't use the hemp rope . . . Its not always safe . . . It breaks easily comparatively speaking . . ." she said, as flashes of the nightmare came back to her.
Sounds intriguing," Ming said. He'd expected something a little less intense, like the Swiss Alps or the Rockies on Earth. "The hemp is rated for 2500 kilograms. It can hold you and me and probably five other people with ease. Don't worry about it!" he said, smiling. Still, he could sense her apprehension. "I'm a purist with these things, but I'll go with what you brought".
"Okay, let's go to it!" Ming said as he put on his climbing gloves. The rope Karissa brought was stronger, but since it was thinner it could cut both of their hands to ribbons in case of a fall. "Are we ascending or descending?"
"Ascending," she replied. "I'm going to take this monster . . ." She was going to conquer the cliffs and by doing so, she hoped she could conquer the nightmare.
"Great! I like going up better anyway," Ming said. He really preferred going down, but anything to please Karissa, an atavistic part of his mind was telling him. Ming approached the cliff face and began hammering in a piton.
"Try this instead," she said, tossing him a pair of specialized grips made just for rock-climbers. It was state-of-the-art and was guaranteed to stick to any surface until dislodged. It made it easier to stay in place as the hooks were placed in the rocks. And the hooks she had were also the newest and strongest stuff around.
"Okay," Ming said, a little disgruntled. He was hoping to try mountain climbing as it had been done on ancient Earth--in fact, given his preferences, he would have scaled the cliff face with no equipment at all. Not that Ming was an expert mountain climber--far from it!--but when doing something new he liked to jump in with both feet. He attached the grip to the rock face and began to proceed up the cliff.
There wasn't a lot of talking as they scaled the cliff. The going seemed easy for the most part . . . and she had the safety gear . . . But as they drew closer to the top, her breath started coming fast and she started to shake. Being the ship's counselor, she knew she was having a panic attack. Ming leaned over to say something to her and in her mind she saw Ryan. She tried to steady herself by taking a deep breath. Finally, she was back in control, though not by much . . .
Ming saw she was having difficulty. *She's the one who suggested climbing,* he thought. *If she's uncomfortable with this we should stop.* "Are you all right, Karissa?" he asked, very concerned. Granted, it was only a holodeck program, but injuries could occur on a holodeck just as easily as anywhere else.
She nodded up at him. "I'm okay," she said, "I have to make it to the top . . ." There was a determination in her voice . . . A need . . .
"We don't have to do this, you know," Ming said. "This is only a holodeck program. We can stop it at any time; you did pick a difficult mountain." Inwardly he was concerned. Ming wasn't the most experienced of men in either climbing or anything else, but he did know when someone was having a problem.
"I'm not going to let it win . . ." she said, her dark eyes glittering. They continued on, but just as she reached the place in her nightmare, the panic attack started again. As she gripped the cliff face, there was small bits of sand under her fingers that made her grip tenuous . . . And all she could hear was the wind . . . maybe this wasn't a good idea she thought with a sinking feeling . . . Memories of the nightmare playing over and over . . . She was unable to push them away . . . Suddenly, her grip failed. As she adjusted, her foot lost its hold and soon, she found herself dangling by the safety rope, starring up into the blue sky above her. Angry tears threatened to fall, but she quelled them swiftly. "DAMN!" she said. She fought her way back to the cliff face with Ming's help . . .
Ming scrambled down the face to help Karissa back up. Between the two of them, she was able to make it back up the safety line. Ming reached down and grabbed Karissa's hand. "You know, this is *only* a program! You don't have to be afraid to back out!" Then, seeing the look in her eyes, he realized there was more going on than the mountain--or this particular mountain.
"I have to make it to the top! I need to prove I can do it . . ." she said. She knew he didn't understand, but this was something she had to do . . .
"All right--we're going to the top, then!" Ming exclaimed. "Then we're going to talk!"
She nodded. They continued climbing and each step brought stronger pounding in her ears. Her heart was thumping out of control, but she wasn't going to quit . . . She was going to get to the top . . . She was going to prove to herself that she could conquer the cliff, that it didn't conquer her . . . She had look at things like that . . . She didn't want to analyze what the cliff meant. This was easier . . .
They finally reached the top of the cliff. Despite all warnings not to do so, Ming looked down. They'd come an awfully long way--and in the simulated heavy gravity of Tinarius III Ming could feel his muscles begin to twitch uncontrollably with fatigue. He was immensely grateful he didn't have to make the descent! He looked over at Karissa and could see that she was worn out, too. But not all of her fatigue was physical.
"Now, do you mind telling me what this was about?" Ming asked.
Taking a deep breath, and grabbing a small towel from a pocket to wipe her face with, she couldn't meet his gaze. "It was . . . because of a nightmare . . . " she admitted. She felt kind of foolish now . . . She hadn't really conquered anything, she realized. But she thought she had . . . There was no analyzing to be done now . . . It was simple and had hit her as she had pulled herself up over the cliff edge . .. The cliff represented her life . . .
"Tell me about it. I want to help!" Ming said. His desire to help wasn't entirely prompted by the pheromone reaction, although that still lingered. He wanted to help someone who had come to mean a great deal to him.
She steadied the pounding of her heart for a moment and debated how much of her dream she could tell him. Suddenly deciding how to place it, she began. "Well, it begins while climbing this cliff . . . I'm with a man and he is climbing just above me. The sky is gray . . . and we're getting close to the top . . . Only, he wants us to go over the top together . . . I tell him we can't . . . We could both fall and die . . . We didn't have any safety gear on at all . . ." she turned away a sighed as she remembered losing her grips . . . and plummeting to the ground believe. She suppressed a shudder. "It started raining . . . He begged me to go up with him . . . I didn't know what to do . . . and I lose my grip . . . I . . . fell . . ."
"Who is it that's climbing with you?" Ming asked, bluntly. He had a suspicion, but didn't want to drive all the way home with it. Not without her letting him.
She leaned forward, placing her face in her hands and hiding them between her knees. She didn't want to hurt him . . . She should have realized that this program was the wrong one to pick . . . She should have picked something that wouldn't hit home the way this one did, she berated herself. She wasn't prepared for this. The nightmare was just going to continue she thought, miserably, and it would be added to. Raising her head, but not looking at his, she brushed away a tear that threatened to fall from the far corner of her dark eyes. "It was Ryan," she finally said quietly . . .
"Somehow I thought so," Ming said, a little downcast. "I'm surprised you'd even want to spend time with someone as lowly as me," he continued.
Finally she met his gaze. "Ming, I spend time with you because I enjoy your company . . . I look at you as a friend . . . You aren't someone lowly to me . . . " she said, the pain in her eyes evident as felt her own pain and his.
"Women always say that when they don't want someone around," Ming said angrily. "It's always 'just friends' when they really mean 'get lost!'" The bitter words flowed out of his heart and his mind uncontrollably. Ming the officer and scientist had lost. Ming the man had lost. Ming the reactive, emotional creature now reigned supreme. "He's the Captain--how could I possibly compete?" he asked.
"Ming, it was never a competition between any of you. I care about you and Will . . . I want to stay friends and be around the two of you . . . I trust you both . . . and that is worth more than anything . . . " she was silent for a moment as she fought off tears. "And because he is the Captain, I have lost . . ." she said. She finally stood and walked to the edge of the cliff, starring down and out over the plain below.
"DON'T DO IT!!!" Ming shouted as he pulled her back. Momentarily he had forgotten it was a holodeck program and that in the worst case scenario Karissa wouldn't fall more than a few meters.
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She hadn't intended to jump. She was contemplating her life. Had it been a real cliff, at that very moment, she couldn't say she wouldn't have done it . . . But she wasn't the type to give in.
"I want to be your friend--I haven't really had many friends," Ming said. "Please understand that a lot of the difficulty is not yours, it's mine. Rank and status rise above everything else in my culture," he explained. The ancient Confucian system of obedience to one's social betters had never completely died out in China--indeed, after the collapse of the Communist dynasty in the mid-21st century, it had returned with a vengeance. 3500 years of history and culture could not be overcome by a mere century or two...much less a human lifetime, particularly one as short as Ming's. "I see things in terms of who has the most power--it's a failing most Chinese who enter Starfleet have, at least at first." He smiled. "I suppose I will overcome it, someday, like everyone else does . But still, I can't help but feel as though I was manipulated."
"You were . . . By me that night . . ." She hadn't thought she would, but she did . . . she regretted that night for so many reasons now . . . The tears were barely held back. But she maintained her face and kept them at bay.
"And I just don't know how to deal with that. I still want you, but I know I can't have you--if for no other reason than that your heart belongs to another," Ming replied. "I'd go to the counselor about it, but you can see the difficulty inherent in that."
If he really needed to talk to someone, then she felt he should . . . "You know . . . if you really do feel like you need to talk . . . Dinara is my assistant . . . she could see you . . . "She wiped at another stray tear. Why did she have to mess up so many lives. She was suppose to be helping people . . . Not destroying them . . .
"If you could set up an appointment for me, I would appreciate it. I want to be your friend, Karissa," Ming said. "Because I see that's what you need the most right now. Lovers are easy to get. Friends are a little more difficult."
She nodded. She hoped that Ming wouldn't use real names when he talked to Dinara, but she wasn't going to ask. It wasn't her place . . . She had caused it all . . . And she knew the Patient/Client privilege would protect them . . . *What a mess I have made,* she said. Maybe she should just return to her quarters and have a drink . . . or try to sleep . . . All she wanted to do was hide. "I am so sorry for everything . . . I really, honestly am . . . And with that, the flood gates opened. She sat back down, with her face in her hands and just sobbed.
So am I," Ming said as he put his arms around her--an embrace of friendship and solace, not of passion. "Maybe if I hadn't gotten so drunk I might have had the presence of mind to leave, and this would never have happened."
She shook her head. She appreciated his effort, but she knew better . . . He knew better . . . There was no way he could have left . . . Because of her and her bloody pheromones . . . "You couldn't have left," she said simply, "And you know it . . ." The tears hardly stopping.
"What's done, is done. All I want to do now is to get my life back! And to do the best I can by you. I want to help you control this thing, so it doesn't happen again! If you want to make a life with the Captain you'll need to control the pheromones somehow," he said. "Otherwise you'll end up hurting him, too. And I want to do anything else I can to help you! You name it!"
"What I need you can't do for me . . . I have to do for myself," she said, gaining a measure of control. "But how do I forgive myself and go on?"
"I can help you with the pheromones," Ming said, the scientist portion of his mind slowly regaining control. "I *am* the Chief Science Officer, after all! As for the other, that's between you, your conscience, and whatever gods you may worship. And Ryan, of course. I can help you with the biochemical end of the problem, but as forthe moral and psychological problems there isn't much I can say beyond 'physician, heal thyself.'" Ming was slowly regathering his composure now that he had a problem to focus on--and a lever to use. "As if I'm any good proponent of such a notion!" he added sardonically.
Her control was starting to return as she wiped the tears away that wet her cheeks. The pain was ebbing, but it never totally went away. "Physician Heal Thyself," she echoed, as if taking it full into herself. She would. "Any help you can give me in regards to controlling these pheromones I would appreciate . . . " she said. "I don't want to go through heat anymore . . . and if it means that I won't have children, then so be it . . . " This hurt too much to go through ever again under any circumstances.
"I don't think it'll be that extreme," Ming said. *Ancestors! What if I've impregnated her???* he thought. "It might be something a simple as a medication you can take when you near estrus, or even a change in diet. But I will see what I can do. I want to do this for you, Karissa. It's the only way I'll feel right about all of this." "This wasn't your fault at all," she said. "I hope you realize that . . . You didn't do anything wrong . . . " She did. It had been her fault . . . All her fault . . .
"Fault is meaningless; as a man I have a responsibility toward you. And I intend to fulfill that responsibility," Ming said. Just how he was going to fulfill any responsibility toward Karissa that didn't involve glassware and a mass spectrometer he wasn't sure.
She sighed. She wanted comfort, but couldn't find any. She could or wouldn't allow herself to feel it. That numbness was coming back again and she wasn't sure what she should do. She sighed, as she watched the programmed sun start setting over the horizon. She had no more words to say. It still came down to being her fault. No matter what . . . It was her fault . . .
"Just remember that whatever happens, I will be your friend," Ming said. "I'll be your friend always!"
She felt him tentatively touch her
shoulder trying to comfort her again with his presence and like an affectionate
cat, she leaned her cheek to it and gently nuzzled it. As she stopped, she tossed
him a brief look, meeting his gaze. She tried to give him a simple smile . .
. she managed, but barely. "Thank you," was all she could say.