Q had been staring at the small pile of wood for nearly ten minutes, by Picard's estimation. Perhaps it hadn't been that long; he didn't exactly have a chronometer. Possibly his frustration with the entire situation was making it seem much longer. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing, Picard?" Q snapped.
"To be honest, I have no idea. Perhaps meditating?"
Q rolled his eyes and sighed, the very picture of the expression "give me strength". All he needed to add to it to complete the picture was a facepalm, Picard thought, getting more and more irritated with the entity's theatrics. "I'm trying to start the fire."
"By looking at it?"
"Oh, and I suppose your advanced Starfleet training taught you how to start a fire without any of your precious technology, in some way more reliable than rubbing sticks together?"
There were three suns here. If they had a lens of some type, this would be easy, but Picard had been doing paperwork when he'd suddenly found himself falling, and then he'd landed here. The gravity of the planet was normal, but he'd landed as if he were a falling feather, drifting down as soon as there was sufficient atmosphere to breathe. Ten minutes later Q had landed the same way. Neither of them had anything on them other than combadges that didn't work. "As a matter of fact, they did," Picard said. "We need rocks, not sticks. Specifically something like flint, if we can find it."
Q closed his eyes and didn't speak for several seconds. He was doing that a great deal. It was oddly out of character – normally Q was in constant motion, and when he wasn't speaking he was at least looking at Picard, or looking everywhere else and making faces. Going still and silent for a few seconds was frankly bizarre, for Q. When he opened them again he pointed. "There's some loose rock over that way. Probably about a five minute walk, for you. Go get some."
"If you're so certain of the location, why don't you go get some? The walk could do you some good." As nearly as Picard could tell, Q's human body was in more or less perfect condition, but Q had no pain tolerance whatsoever – or even discomfort tolerance – and disliked any strenuous physical activity. He didn't need the exercise to improve his muscle tone, but he could certainly use it to improve his tolerance for the physical stress of taking a walk.
Q sighed again. "Because I'm busy. You go do it."
"Busy doing what? As nearly as I can see, all you're doing is staring at that pile of firewood."
"Go get your flint, Picard."
Picard considered the merits of simply refusing on the grounds that he didn't take orders from Q, and decided that in this case, standing on that ground would be foolish. Regardless of what Q was trying and plainly failing to do, the sooner they started a fire the better off they would be.
He glanced up at the sky. Were the three suns closer together than they had been before? The gas giant that hovered in the sky was already closer to the bluer sun, which was smaller and higher in the sky than the others.
"There's going to be a syzygy, and that gas giant is going to block the whole thing with an eclipse that will last over a month. The temperature will drop and the nocturnal creatures will be out in force. If we don't have shelter and a way of keeping ourselves warm by then, we're dead."
Q still hadn't explained why either of them were there or why he didn't seem to have his powers, but he'd explained that much, at least. The syzygy looked as if it was still a few days away, but they had yet to find shelter, or get a fire started. It was warm enough that the fire hadn't been an issue so far, but if Q was right, and Picard had no reason to believe he wasn't – not about a stellar phenomenon on a planet Picard had never been to before, at least – then it would soon be critical.
When he came back with the flint, Q was still staring at the pile of wood. "Q. Move aside and let me."
"I think I've almost gotten it," Q said, his voice sounding distracted. He didn't look at Picard.
"This!" Triumphantly Q snapped his fingers. A tiny thread of smoke rose from the pile. "Yes! I'm back in business!"
Picard came over to look at the pile of firewood. There was a single ember, glowing, on top of one of the pieces of wood. As he watched, it went dark. "I think you may possibly have accomplished less than you intended to," he said diplomatically, or it would have been diplomatically if he'd been able to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
Q stared at the no-longer-smoking firewood. "Shit."
He would not laugh. No matter how incongruous it was to hear a several-billion-year-old, all-powerful entity resort to crude language. "Step aside. I'll get this started."
With bad grace Q moved. His failure was plainly weighing him down; his shoulders were sagging and he was glaring at his feet, as if they'd offended him somehow. "Very well, resort to your caveman tactics. I suppose they're all we have left, now."
"Q. What were you trying to do?" Picard struck the piece of flint in his hand with his combadge, trying to get a spark going.
"I explained already—"
"You explained nothing. You don't appear to have your powers, or you wouldn't be worried about starting a fire. But you stared at a pile of firewood for at least twenty minutes, snapped your fingers, and got a single ember to spark for approximately ten seconds. So you have some power, I take it?"
"Not enough." Q continued to glare at his feet. "I can get enough of a connection to the Continuum to pull information, but no one's answering my calls for help and I can't draw enough power to start a simple fire. This is infuriating."
"Oh, well, this is the first I've heard that you've been calling for help! Or anything about your position in this situation, really. Don't you think it's time you explained to me what's going on?" Sparks dropped onto the firewood. Some seemed to catch, but Picard knew better than to stop until there was a substantial fire. "I don't have any idea why you're here. Or why I am. Were you banished by the Continuum again? And if so, why am I here with you?"
"If I was banished by the Continuum why would I be calling for help? Be reasonable, Jean-Luc."
"It's very hard to be reasonable when you're giving me so few facts to reason with."
Q sat down on a nearby rock. "You're here because someone threw you here. I'm here because I was foolish enough to try to grab you, and it was a trap."
"A trap?" Picard raised his eyebrows. "Who has the power to trap you?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
There were now three small fires burning on the firewood pile, and every evidence that they were strong enough to stand up to small gusts of wind, now. Picard stood up and backed away from the makeshift firepit. "Obviously not, or I wouldn't be asking."
"I have enemies."
"Yes, I've met some. The Calamarain, for instance. But my understanding was that you were only vulnerable to them because you were mortal at the time. If they had the power to make you mortal—"
"I'm not mortal."
"No?" Picard didn't try to hide his skepticism. "You don't appear to have much if any of your powers..."
"I still can't die. If this body dies... I just hang around here. Trapped. I can't get enough energy from the Continuum to do much of anything and I can't leave, but my... mmm, I don't know how to phrase this without tapping into language from your primitive human superstitions..."
"Why not start with giving me the credit of knowing that I don't subscribe to those superstitions, and use the words that make sense?"
"I don't know about that. You seem to think the universe was actually created by an omnipotent entity who has a better sense of design than I do."
"I don't know who created the universe, or if it even makes sense to speculate on there being a 'who' and not a 'what', but I am quite confident it wasn't you, yes."
"We're going to need to find food. My stomach is doing that making noises thing again. I think I'm hungry."
Picard sighed. "I'm sure you are, but don't change the subject. Who trapped you here, and why am I here?"
"Didn't you hear me when I said I tried to grab you? You're here because you were the bait. And I'm fairly certain that another Q is responsible for this. Maybe more than one of them. The Continuum is... somewhat fractured lately." He got to his feet. "I'm going to look for food. I have no desire to starve to death."
"I thought you said you couldn't die."
"If this body dies, I'll be trapped here without enough energy to make a new one, and if I can't start a simple fire I doubt I'll be able to interact with matter much at all. Besides, this is a very unpleasant sensation."
"All right. I'll help. I have survival training."
"And I have the Continuum. It might take me a ridiculously long period of time to get the information I need, but I can get it. Without your fancy tricorders and things, how are you going to know what's edible for humans?"
He had a point, though Picard didn't want to admit it out loud. A botanist might know the principles necessary to understand what would be safe for humans to eat without the equipment to analyze specific plants, but Picard wasn't a botanist. Most of his training assumed the existence of a tricorder, or a prior analysis of the planet to determine that it was not only M-class but that its plant life was within acceptable tolerances for humanoid compatibility, or not. He knew nothing about this planet except what Q had told him. "I'll still go with you. If you fall and sprain your ankle, you'll need help."
"I'm a superintelligent, immortal entity who's older than your planet. I think I can manage not to trip."
"Q. You're not used to being trapped in a human body. Kindly shut up and accept my help, since I'm not giving you a choice."
Q sighed again. "Oh, very well."
Picard didn't resume the conversation; he didn't want to distract Q, who would stop every time he found a different plant and stare at it for several seconds before eventually declaring whether it was edible, edible with preparation, or inedible. He'd pulled off his shirt to have something to gather food in if it was edible with preparation, or if there was so much of it that he couldn't simply eat it all, like when he found a bush full of edible orange berries. Carefully Picard didn't exactly look at him – at his feet to make sure he wasn't going to trip, at his surroundings to make sure there weren't branches that were about to smack him in the face, at the makeshift sack he'd turned his shirt into, but not at his naked chest or face.
It was a deeply unfortunate thing that the most irritating creature in the universe had managed on the first try to adopt a form that was so goddamn attractive. Picard wasn't at all sure Q hadn't done it on purpose, though he'd come to think that wasn't likely the case ever since Q had claimed he would have appeared as a female if he'd known of Picard's weakness for Vash ahead of time, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that Q himself was just as physically attractive to Picard as Vash was and it was his personality and actions, not his gender, that had ensured Picard would have a completely different behavior toward him. Picard had never been able to afford the distraction of responding to Q's physical appearance the way his own body wanted to; he hadn't dared to so much as think of Q while fantasizing, for fear that Q would possibly read his mind. And now, when he might actually be safe from that particular danger – Q wasn't completely powerless, but the fact that it took him twenty minutes to fail to start a fire and thirty seconds to determine whether or not a plant was edible suggested that he was really unlikely to be reading Picard's mind right now – he couldn't take the risk that thinking of such things right now could distract him from very real dangers around him. Or around Q, whose knowledge might end up being the difference between life and death for both of them, but who had no idea how to take care of a human body in normal operation.
So instead of looking at Q's naked chest or dwelling on the images such a sight might inspire, Picard thought about the few facts he'd managed to extract from Q.
This was a trap. Q had enemies in the Continuum, which was more fractured than usual. No one was responding to his calls for help, but this wasn't an official punishment, which implied that perhaps maybe Q did have allies in the Continuum but either they were too cowed by his enemies to help him, or his enemies were keeping the messages from getting through. Certainly in the past the Continuum had seemed to believe in the rule of law enough that Picard thought it would probably not be acceptable to the Q in general if one or more of their number managed to trap a fellow Q somewhere.
Picard himself had been used as bait. Q had tried – and failed – to "grab" him. Which implied... what? That Q had been upset that another Q had been interfering with his favorite toy? Was that a motive that would lead a Q to risk its immortal existence in falling into a trap set by another of its kind? Why would Q risk himself trying to save Picard? Pride? Anger at another Q's interference? Or... something else?
A syzygy was coming, and then an eclipse. The three suns would be blocked for a month. The temperature would drop. Picard knew enough astrophysics to know that blocking a sun for a month would, on most worlds, trigger winter – but it would be a very sudden, rapid-onset winter, very stressful for the animals. Plants would rapidly die. Predators would turn desperate. Q couldn't die, but the death of his mortal body would leave him trapped here in a low-energy state where he wouldn't have the strength to interact with matter... and he'd be alone, because even if Picard survived it, Picard would need Q to be able to interact with matter to be able to see or hear him. And without the assistance of any other sapient being... well, Picard might survive. He was trained. Thomas Riker had lived on an alien world all alone for eight years. But he had no weapons, and there would be predators and very little food, aside from what he and Q could successfully stockpile in the next few days.
They'd have to work together. It sounded to Picard as if the death of Q's mortal body might actually be a fate worse than ordinary mortal death, for Q, if it left him in some kind of incorporeal form, too weak to do anything. So for all intents and purposes, he should fear death as much as Picard, even if his fate after death would be somewhat different.
Once they returned, Picard put some of the various tubers and other vegetables that needed to be cooked that Q had found onto the fire, pushing sticks through them and suspending them over a makeshift spit, largely because he didn't trust Q not to burn himself trying to do it. Q found some very large, somewhat stiff leaves to serve as plates, and parceled out the various berries, leaves and other things he'd found that were edible without cooking onto two of the leaves. Things that needed to be crushed into meal or soaked or some other preparation method went to the side.
"Are the animal proteins here compatible with us?"
Q made a face. "They're levo-proteins, so on the face of it, yes, they're edible... but to be quite honest I'm not ready to descend to that level of Neanderthal barbarism yet."
"If we can't get out of here before the syzygy, it's likely that we'll have to. You didn't gather any eggs, I noticed."
"This isn't the egg-laying season and the animals here are all more or less reptilian. Soft eggs. And they're all fertilized, anyway."
"I understand that. But we're going to need protein to survive. If nothing on the planet makes milk, then the only ways to get protein would be legumes, eggs, or killing animals and eating them. Are any of the things you gathered sources of protein?"
Q shook his head. "There were some nuts in a tree, but I couldn't reach them. Maybe we can get some later, or tomorrow."
Picard took a deep breath. "What are the odds of us being rescued before the syzygy?"
Q looked at the dirt. "There's no chance whatsoever that the Enterprise will find us, if that's what you're asking. We're much too close to the galactic core; it'd take them at least a dozen years to reach us, if not more."
"So our only hope is... what? Your allies in the Continuum?" No answer. "I do hope you have allies."
"Of course I have allies." Q scowled, scuffing his boots against the dirt. "It's just..."
"It's just what?"
He looked at Picard, finally. "I leave the Continuum for centuries at a time. No one will notice me missing, per se, and... I'm afraid that whoever set up this trap might be blocking my calls for help." He breathed deeply. "There is exactly one Q that I expect to be distressed enough by my sudden absence that he might come looking for me... and he's a child. They could lie to him. Tell him I left him on purpose, or... any number of things. He doesn't know how to detect the underlayers of communication to figure out if a Q is lying, yet."
"Why is your only ally in the Continuum a child?"
"That's not what I said," Q snapped. "I have a lot of allies, but none of them would see anything wrong with me not being around for months or years or decades at a time, because that's what I do. That's normal. They won't check up on me unless q creates a problem... which he might, he does, fairly frequently, but they're more likely to expect Q to deal with the problem—"
"Q. I have no idea how many different entities you're talking about, since they're all named Q. Who might create a problem? What sort of problem? And why is this even happening? I thought your species were supposed to be too advanced for this sort of thing."
"I thought so too... once." Q got up and started pacing. "Kathy's been in communication with you people, though. I didn't realize, but she never even told you about the war, did she?"
"Oh." It clicked, then. "Oh! You've had dealings with Voyager? In the Delta Quadrant?"
"I'm a bit miffed that Kathy hasn't told you about any of her adventures with me. You're supposed to be the local expert on the Q, laughable as that is. I'd have thought Starfleet would have forwarded you her logs pertaining to me. Unless she's been a bad, bad girl and hasn't logged anything."
"I'm... not entirely sure they would, to be honest. They didn't notify me you'd been on Deep Space Nine. I had to hear it from Vash, and when I asked Starfleet Command, they said..." Picard trailed off, trying to figure out how to end this sentence in a way that didn't give too much away.
"They said? Oh, you have to tell me, Jean-Luc, I'm on tenterhooks here."
They'd said that the topic of Q seemed to be emotionally compromising for him. That the logs he'd provided discussing the times that Q had possibly saved his life when his heart had fused, and when Q had helped him save the Alpha Quadrant from a problem that Q had tricked him into causing, revealed an undue level of trust in Q – which was laughable; he didn't trust Q. He of all people knew how little any human could trust the entity. But he and Q had an understanding, and he thought it might be harder for Q to lie to him than it used to be. He'd tried to explain this, that their armchair "experts" who were studying his logs and supposedly analyzing the Q Continuum from them couldn't possibly know Q as well as he did, having never met the entity. They'd strongly implied that the fact that Picard had met the entity was taken as an indication that anything Picard said about Q was to be taken with a grain of salt. It was infuriating.
"They said that they'd assigned Earth-local experts to the analysis of the Q Continuum based on my logs. That I should continue to report any interactions I have with you, but that... my personal analysis of those interactions would be unnecessary."
"Pfft. Typical. I wonder sometimes how any of you ever got into space. Every species in the Federation are idiots."
This was too close to Picard's own opinion of Starfleet's directives in this matter for Picard to argue with him. "So, no, they haven't told me anything about any interactions you might have had with Starfleet officers other than myself and my crew. And what is this about a war?"
"Well..." Q looked around at everything but Picard. "Hey, aren't you afraid those are going to burn?"
"Not really, no. I'm watching them."
"Not very carefully, as nearly as I can tell. You're mostly interrogating me."
"Q. I know how to cook a potato."
"But these aren't technically potatoes, they're—"
"You said they were tubers. They're enough like potatoes. Don't dodge the question."
Q sighed. "I didn't really want to tell you about this, but I suppose, under the circumstances... We had a civil war. By your standards, two years ago, though I've been through about three thousand years' worth of linear time since then."
"Three... thousand... years?"
"Oh, don't make that face, three thousand years for me is barely anything."
"That's most of recorded civilization on Earth."
"Yes, why do you think I think you're far too big for your britches? The Continuum's been trying to pull itself together since then, and mostly we're all managing to get along, have a big kumbaya everyone's back together moment, you know. But there are holdouts. Q who don't like the way the war ended."
"How did the war end?" What Picard really wanted to know was how it got started in the first place, if the Q were such an advanced species, but that was secondary to understanding the danger he and Q were in and why it had happened. This seemed to directly pertain to the issue of Q having enemies.
"My side won." Q smirked. "My, uh, my companion. I don't think I've ever mentioned her to you before, have I?"
"You don't generally mention any other Q to me."
"Right, well, we have a kind of on and off relationship. We were off for most of the time I knew you, but the war brought us back together... for a while." He scowled. "We're mostly off again at the moment, if you want to know the truth. She's much too harsh with the baby."
"Not really a baby anymore." Q beamed. "We ended the war by having a child together. Symbol of new life, renewal for the Continuum, all that. A dramatic representation of the principle that change doesn't have to mean death." He lost the smile. "He's a sweet kid. But he's still a kid. He's going to miss me – I haven't wandered away from him for longer than a month or two, in all of his existence, and never without an explanation. But mainly he'll complain to Q about it, and she'll probably tell him I do this sort of thing all the time and not to worry about it, since, well, before he was born I did do this sort of thing all the time and she refuses to give me credit for stepping up and taking responsibility since he was born. And even if she cared... she's persona non grata in the Continuum herself, for the role she played in the war."
"What did she do?"
"She armed mortals and brought them into the Continuum. None of them actually killed any Q, but that's not the point; the fact that they could have... well, imagine how a human would feel if another human weaponized cockroaches and turned them against your own kind."
"Humans have actually done similar things, in our past. Not cockroaches precisely, but we've used bioweapons against each other."
Q shuddered. "And that's why I called you a grievously savage race."
"Which seems now odd, in retrospect, if your kind was capable of having a civil war."
"I knew you were going to rub it in if I told you. Aren't those tubers done yet?"
"No, they're not. When they're close to falling off the sticks, then they're done. So. You're saying you're a father now?"
"I am! First father in the Continuum." The beaming smile was back. Picard wasn't sure he liked it. Q looked... genuinely happy, not calculating, not snide. It made him look even more attractive, and more... well, more safe than he actually was. A great deal more danger could hide in an appearance that lulled Picard into forgetting the danger.
"What about Amanda's father?"
The smile was gone. Q scowled. "He wasn't in the Continuum when he had her. Amanda's parents had her the human way. Q and I figured out how to do pure Q reproduction, no need to use another species' methods. Fun as they might have been."
"And you don't think your... companion? The mother of your child? Will miss you. But your son will, but you're not sure the extent to which he's capable of influencing other Q to look for you or take action on his own."
"More or less." He sighed. "So to answer your question? I really don't rate the odds of us being rescued before syzygy as very high."
"We don't have winter gear of any kind. Are there any feathered animals on this planet? I know you said everything was largely reptilian, so I don't expect to find any fur."
Q paused, that brief delay that seemed to indicate he was looking the information up in the Continuum's data stores. Was that really how it worked? When he had his full powers, he seemed to know everything he chose to know, instantly, but if what he was really doing was looking things up in some sort of highly advanced data storage center, and normally his bandwidth was so high that the time it took him to send the query and receive the data was undetectable to human perceptions... well, that demystified a lot. Arthur C. Clarke had once said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic, and Picard had his own experiences of being worshipped because his technology made him seem to be a god to people with less advanced technology. He'd always known Q's powers were a kind of highly advanced technology, but he'd never put any thought into how they might work, as he'd always assumed their function would be basically incomprehensible to humans. If all Q was doing was looking things up in the equivalent of a computer, it made a little more sense why he had any interest at all in hanging around humans. His powers might not be genuinely incomprehensible at all... and he himself might not be, either.
"Yes. There are large feathered bipeds. Rather similar to giant chickens, actually, but much more dangerous. They have teeth, not beaks."
"I've had dealings with chickens. I grew up in farm country, if you remember. I know better than to underestimate them." He glanced around, looking for sticks that could possibly be sharpened. "I'm afraid we might have to kill one, or a few. Not just for the meat. Once the temperature drops, we'll need protection from the cold."
"There's a cave system thataway." Q pointed. "Probably a two or three hour hike. There might be animals living in the cave that we'd have to drive out, for safety. But the temperature underground should remain stable during the syzygy. It'll be chilly, but if we can find an area with a natural chimney, we can have a fire."
"All excellent ideas, but it would still be much preferable to sleep on a bedding of feathers than the damp clay or limestone of cave grounds."
"Do you know how to tan a hide? Because I'm fairly sure sleeping on a rotting lizard skin would not be an improvement over the damp ground."
Picard laughed. "I do, actually, but I'd need your help to find plants containing tannins here. The alternative is that we build up a bed of leaves."
Q waggled his eyebrows. "We could always sleep together to share body heat."
Picard flushed but refused to respond to the bait. Better to let Q think he had no sexual thoughts toward Q whatsoever. "That might be wise, if we can't find some other materials to use for warmth."
"Really? I'll hold you to having said that."
"We need to survive. If your son won't expect you gone longer than a month at most, we can live through this if we can ride out syzygy. I am sure any child of yours would raise more than enough of a ruckus at not getting what he wants right away that he'll draw attention to the fact that you're missing, and some Q will come and find us just to get you to get him to be quiet."
"I think you're actually trying to insult my son, which I'd have thought beneath you, Picard, but since I consider the ability to raise a ruckus over your father being missing a very important talent that any Q who happens to have a father should have, it just sounds to me like praise."
"Oh, I'd hardly insult a child to a father's face. I'm very much hoping your child raises an enormous ruckus. And given who you are, I suspect he might have a talent for it."
"He does, Picard. Believe me, he does."
The hike to the cave actually took most of the sunlight they had left, after they ate. There wasn't time to pursue hunting a feathered creature. They had to gather firewood, and then Picard gathered leaves, both fallen ones and fresh ones from trees, while Q started the fire – this time, successfully managing to snap it into existence, though after he was done he was panting hard and refused to stand up, after trying and discovering he was too dizzy to stay that way.
"You should save your strength, Q. If you can gather enough energy to start a fire... perhaps, if you gather it for long enough, you might be able to kill a predator chasing us, or save yourself from a fall if needed. Or heal a wound. We might need that."
"I don't know how much I can store in this body," Q said, still breathing hard. Picard was loading more tubers onto another makeshift spit. They'd been bland, but filling enough.
"You won't know unless you try."
Sweat had soaked both of their bodies, from the hike. Q had suggested taking off their shirts and pants and laying them out on stalagtites near the fire, so they'd dry off. Picard had insisted on just the shirts, on the grounds that it was cold in the cave. He was well aware that his justification made no sense; their legs were burrowed into a pile of leaves. If anything, they'd have been better off keeping their shirts on and taking off their pants. But Q didn't question it.
"There's a number of underground pools. The water won't be very tasty, with all the limestone in it, but it'll be drinkable."
Picard nodded. "You don't think the temperature will drop enough down here for them to freeze, do you?"
Q snorted. "With that many minerals in them? Not a chance. I doubt the temperature's ever going to go much below 250 Kelvin."
That was 23 below 0, Celsius. "That's... still very cold."
"I meant up there. Down here we shouldn't get much lower than 275."
4 degrees Celsius. Not freezing, but very chilly. "I imagine that would be toward the end of the syzygy."
"Yeah. What we'll get for the first few days will be rain. All the water will dump out of the atmosphere. By the end of a week we'll see snow and ice, maybe."
"We're underground. Is the rain going to be a problem?"
Q shrugged. "Perhaps we should take some time to dig a moat. Redirect the rain into one of the underground pools that's above our location. Or go deeper into the cave system and try to find another natural chimney."
"Too deep into a cave and we may have issues with the oxygen. Our torches could go out."
"I'll check the oxygen levels before we go down."
Picard smiled. "I never imagined what a useful tricorder you'd make, Q."
"Go check if the food's done, Picard. And don't quit your day job to go into comedy."
The food took another half hour, during which Q went exploring and came back with a handful of salt crystals. "Mostly sodium chloride. The other elements aren't going to affect the palatability, much."
"Similar to sea salt, then."
"Exactly like sea salt. That gas giant up there produces some astonishing tides. This cave system was under ocean less than ten thousand years ago." He gave Picard some of the salt crystals. "I don't care, I mostly expect all the food to be utterly awful, but you complained about how boring the unpotatoes were without salt, so... here's some salt."
"Thank you." It was unlike Q to be considerate like that. Perhaps having a child had mellowed him, or made him more compassionate. One could hope, anyway. "Unpotatoes?"
"Well, they're not actually potatoes, but I don't see you coming up with a name for them."
Of course, the Q wouldn't have a name for them. Not one human ears could understand, anyway. They couldn't be bothered to come up with separate names for each other, why name tubers? "I suppose unpotatoes is as good a name as any."
They ate in moderate silence. Q made faces at his food but had at least developed enough maturity since the last time he'd been stuck as a human to know better than to complain. He'd been remarkably good, really, for Q, only complaining about how the hike was hurting his back or feet or hips every maybe fifteen minutes or so when they'd come over here, and he hadn't complained at all when they'd been searching for food. Well, except for the complaints when he'd found something the Continuum told him was edible and his tongue told him was awful. Apparently the database of everything the Q knew about everything in existence couldn't tell him ahead of time whether an edible food would actually be good to his human senses.
It made Picard wonder something.
"You're holding up under this remarkably well, all things considering."
"What, because I went to pieces the first time I was made human? I've lived through a war since then, Picard. And there's a big difference between being thrown out by the entire Continuum for what I expected was going to be the rest of my vastly shortened lifespan, and being tricked into a trap that I know I'll get out of sooner or later. I doubt they were considering my son when they lured me here. This tactic would have been a lot more effective if I didn't have a small remora now who's never happy unless he knows exactly where he can go to latch onto me."
"That makes sense, but I still wonder. Considering what a hardship this is for you..."
Several seconds passed. "Does that sentence actually have an ending?" Q asked.
"Well, to put it bluntly. Why did you come after me?"
"Would you rather I hadn't?"
"Not at all. I'm... not pleased to be here, certainly, but you've been surprisingly tolerable company thus far."
"'Thus far.' 'Surprisingly tolerable.' Oh, the damnation with faint praise. What a talent you have for it, Jean-Luc."
"But are you telling me that a Q picked me up and tossed me through some hole in reality to send me here, and you tried to use your powers to grab me and instead ended up being sucked in?"
"No, that would be absurd. When you make a pinpoint wormhole like that you, uh... how to put it... you polarize it, so that only your powers work through it. If you don't want another Q messing with whatever you just chucked into it. I knew he was throwing you into a pocket dimension and I knew my power wouldn't go through it unless I carried it through myself. It's... well, it's very difficult to explain with the vocabulary you have, but suffice it to say, I knew I wouldn't be able to pull you back unless I went in myself. What I didn't realize – well, I knew it was a possibility, but I didn't know it for a certainty – was that he had it set up in a way... it was like a tunnel where it gets narrower and narrower and each choke point cut off more of my connection to the Continuum, and the power I could access. I realized halfway down that if I tried to use telekinesis to pull you up the tidal forces would probably spaghettify you, and all I could do was make myself a human body and then alter the gravitational constant on you and me, temporarily, so that we wouldn't die from hitting the ground."
"This is a pocket dimension, then."
"Not... exactly. It's... more like he took a pocket dimension and unfolded it into a bubble around a solar system in real space. Like the time your little Crusher accidentally banished his mom to a pocket dimension."
"What happens if he collapses the bubble?"
"Nothing except that the thing blocking my ability to connect to the Continuum would be gone. It's not a... penalty box. It's a Faraday cage blanket."
"Well, that's a relief at least."
Q finished his unpotato. "This is entirely too uncomfortable. Not only are these pants still soaked with sweat, and making my legs itch, but now they're pinching my stomach."
"You may have eaten too much. Or given yourself pants that are too tight."
"How am I supposed to know how much I need to eat? I'm not exactly used to this." He stripped off his pants. Picard looked away. "Oh, come now, Picard, this level of modesty is ridiculous. You've seen me naked."
"I just think we should try to remain professional about all of this."
"I don't belong to any profession that says that I need to wear pants. Anyway, our leaf bed will heat up faster if I'm not blocking the body heat from my legs." Picard kept his head turned. "Picard, seriously? It's not as if I took off my underwear. Though if you don't stop being so prissy, I might."
"I wouldn't recommend it. Human testicles... don't respond well to the cold. At all."
"Hmm. Good to know. I guess the underpants stay on for now." Q climbed into the big pile of leaves Picard had made to serve as a bed. "This is... not very comfortable. Couldn't you have found less poky leaves?"
"Probably not. There was a reason I would rather have had feathers." Picard put down the leaf he'd been using for a plate. "I'm going to store the rest of our food up there." He pointed at a shelflike outcropping sticking out from the cavern wall. "No sense in attracting the attention of ground dwellers."
"You need help reaching up there? I'm taller."
"Not tall enough."
"I could lift you."
"And then complain endlessly about your back. No thank you." There were handholds and footholds in the stone, warps in the limestone. It wasn't terribly difficult to climb it, though the stone was chilly and he was glad he hadn't removed his pants. (Not only for that reason. The thought of Q lifting him generated a few truly inappropriate thoughts before Picard was able to quash them.)
He stashed the food that was left, and returned to the leaf bed. Q had apparently snuggled all the way into it; only his head was visible. "You look cozy."
"I'm freezing. That thing about sharing body warmth? Get over here and help me fight entropy."
Well. Technically speaking, the term referred to heat dispersal and tendency to energy equilibrium as much as it did to disorder and decay. Picard removed his boots and climbed into the leaf pile. Almost immediately Q grabbed him and pulled him close, spooning him.
"Q!" Picard pushed back, sitting up and moving away from Q. "This is not what I meant by sharing body warmth!"
"Well, what did you mean? Or what did you think I was doing?" Q sat up. "If you're afraid of me having designs on your virtue, Picard, you can rest easy. I just want you to be a blanket."
"Well, don't just... grab people when you want them to be a blanket. You could have discussed it first."
"I thought we did. How did you expect to share body heat if you don't want to be in contact with me?"
The frantic whirring of his heart slowed. Of course Q was actually right. Spooning against each other would be a much more efficient method of staying warm than simply lying next to each other. Dammit. He lay back down slowly. "You startled me."
"I'm not going to rape you, Jean-Luc. Well, unless you ask nicely."
"If I asked nicely then it could hardly be considered rape, could it?"
"Good point. Also, I imagine all three of these suns will go nova first." Q chuckled and moved closer to Picard again. This time Picard let Q wrap his arms around him and pull him back against Q's chest. The intimacy was deeply uncomfortable, in more ways than one, but they wouldn't freeze at least.
"You know, you can take your pants off. I know you don't usually wear them to bed."
"I'd rather keep them on."
Q's sigh was exasperated. "Picard. I've already said I have no intention of molesting you. You don't need to keep your pants on to protect your virtue. Besides, I might be bigger than you but as you're so fond of pointing out, I have very little experience with pain and no combat training in this body, whereas you're one of Starfleet's finest. If I were the sort of entity to try anything too risqué, I imagine I'd be eating my teeth."
"I'd rather not harm you."
"And I'd rather not harm you." He was quiet for a moment. "It's bad enough I dragged you into this."
"You said you tried to rescue me."
"Yes, but you wouldn't have been in danger if one of my enemies hadn't decided you'd make a good bait."
"Why was I a good bait? Surely you're not in the habit of rescuing every mortal you study."
"Only the moderately interesting ones." Q yawned. "Oh dear, my mouth and lungs are doing that thing again."
"That thing again?"
"Yes, the last time they did that thing they just did, I felt weak and all the energy in my body just seeped out of me and I lost consciousness and then later you told me I fell asleep. Which I suppose means it's going to happen again, right? I mean, this is a thing you humans do every night?"
Picard managed not to sigh. "Yes. And you yawned. Which can mean you're bored, you don't have enough oxygen in your bloodstream and you need to move around a bit, or you're tired and need to go to sleep. Given the hour and the stress of the day, I'd guess it to be the last one."
"Are these leaves less scratchy on your legs when you have pants on?"
"Possibly, but I couldn't say for certain. They are poking me in several places. I think we should make a serious effort to take down a large feathered creature tomorrow."
Q yawned again. "I suppose so..."
They lay quietly for long enough that Picard thought Q might have fallen asleep, until Q said, "Is there is a trick to this?"
"Falling asleep. Last time it just happened. I didn't have to do anything. But it's not happening now."
"You need to relax." Now that it had been pointed out to him that Q wasn't asleep, he could feel the tension in the entity's arms around him. "Let go of whatever you're worrying about."
"How am I supposed to do that?" There was a slight tremor in Q's voice. "My son is all alone without me and I don't trust Q not to be cruel when she disciplines him, which she's going to, because he gets in trouble all the time and she's always too hard on him. We're facing the onset soon of freezing weather when we have exactly no technology to assist us with survival, or even food stores. My body might die and leave me trapped here like some kind of ghost, unable to do anything until the Continuum finds me." He was silent for a moment. "You might die. And I wouldn't have the power to do anything about it."
"All of that is true," Picard said quietly. "But you can't change any of it. We've done all the work we can tonight to prepare for the syzygy, and it's still a few days off. We need to get rest so we can use the daylight to work tomorrow."
"Three suns, Picard. It's never nighttime. If we left this cave right now there would be daylight. It would just be very weak daylight because the stars are too close to each other right now; the far star would be stuck on the horizon and we wouldn't be able to see the others. It'd look like sunset on a heavily overcast day."
"I thought night was falling."
"Well, we did lose two stars, and they're the brighter two."
"We still need rest, regardless. You have to let go of your fears for the night and try to sleep."
"I don't think I can." Q's arms tightened slightly. "I don't like this whole losing consciousness thing. The Q don't do that. Ever. It's like dying temporarily. How can you stand it?"
"Well, we start our lives doing it quite a lot, so I suppose we're used to it by the time we're older. But going to bed is a common fear among children."
"I'm not a child."
"No, but you've had a human body for considerably less time than any child who's capable of trying to stay up out of fear of sleeping." He rolled over and sat up again, mostly disentangled from Q. "I know it's difficult, but you have to try to sleep."
There was very little light; they'd let the fire burn down to a dull flicker. Q looked... vulnerable, in a way that Picard had never seen him before. He'd certainly been vulnerable when he'd been human the last time, aboard the Enterprise, but he'd also been prickly and sarcastic and had struggled to hide what he felt because, if Picard was honest with himself, Picard would have been cruel to him if Q had been as vulnerable as he was now. In fact, he had been; Q had come to him, trying to come to terms with Data's injury and more or less telling Picard he planned to kill himself, and Picard hadn't seen it, seeing only Q's usual narcissism, making Data's injury all about himself. It hadn't been until Q had actually tried to kill himself that Picard had realized what Q must have been feeling, but then it had been too late.
To be fair, the time he'd last seen Q before that, he'd lost 18 good crewmembers to the Borg, and it had been Q's fault. This time, he'd had other experiences – Q possibly saving his life on the operating table, and definitely helping him to come to terms with the man he'd been in his youth; Q pushing him into nearly destroying the Alpha Quadrant, on the Continuum's command, and giving him help in solving the puzzle, on his own recognizance. Q wasn't an enemy anymore. At the moment, he was a comrade, a fellow sufferer in a terrible situation. Possibly even a friend.
Picard reached out and stroked his hair. He hadn't really meant to; he'd meant to deliver a manly pat on the shoulder, or something like that. Something to offer comfort, but show no weakness on his own side, no particularly strong emotion. Instead he was brushing the hair out of the entity's eyes. "It'll be all right, Q. We have a lot of things we'll have to do to keep ourselves safe, but we have time to do them. We just need to get some sleep."
"Jean-Luc?" Q's voice was tiny, almost inaudible – a terrible contrast to his usual bombastic demeanor. His eyes were wide. It almost hurt to see him like this - Q was supposed to be chaos in motion, self-centered and self-assured, untouchable, invulnerable. This wasn't what Q was supposed to be like.
He's this way because he tried to rescue me. Picard would never have imagined that Q would try to rescue any mortal, let alone himself, if it meant any kind of risk to his person. And now he was alone, afraid, separated from his child, and in mortal danger.
"I'm sorry this happened to you," Picard said softly. "You shouldn't – I greatly appreciate that you tried to save me, but you shouldn't have risked yourself for me."
"Why not?" His voice was barely above a whisper. "You were in that situation because of me."
"Yes. But if it was a trap – and you said you even guessed it might be—"
"They knew," Q said. "You can't hide your weaknesses in the Continuum, no matter how hard you try. They knew the truth. But you don't. It's funny." He chuckled weakly. "You'd have much more right to know than they would, but I can lie to mortals, and I can hide things. Not from other Q, as little as they deserve to know."
Picard looked down at him in utter confusion. "To know what?"
"They knew I was obsessed with you. That I... care about you. More than we've ever allowed our kind to care about mortals. That it's one of the reasons I fought the war." Q closed his eyes. "It's been three thousand years, and I've been busy. Continuum to rebuild and all that, a child to raise. But I kept ducking back into your linear timeline, to look at you. I wanted to talk to you, to tell you everything that's happened... but I didn't want you to know about the war. I mean, it's humiliating. Put a guy on trial for his species being a grievously savage race and then your own has a civil war." He looked away. "I was afraid of facing you, because I wanted to tell you everything but I didn't want to deal with your reaction, and after Voyager started contacting the Alpha Quadrant I was sure you already knew it all and you were just waiting to gloat."
"I don't think I would have gloated," Picard said, latching onto the only thing Q had said that he felt safe reacting to.
"You did gloat. Today."
"No, I pointed out your hypocrisy, but I didn't gloat."
"Maybe you have a different definition of gloating than I have. Whatever. I had things to do, and I didn't think Q would watch q if I was seeing you. She's insanely jealous. It's a character flaw, I've been dealing with it for aeons. The Q are supposed to be above jealousy and we don't do monogamy and I certainly never promised her anything of the sort, but she's always been jealous, especially of the mortals, which makes no sense. I knew she wouldn't do anything to harm you, but she wouldn't stop q from coming to bother me if I tried to have an adult conversation with you. So I didn't come. I didn't tell you anything. But I wanted to." Q took a deep breath. "Not like it matters. You've only barely come around to not despising me. I never actually intended to tell you how I feel, because I knew it wouldn't matter. But... what if this body dies and I'm trapped here and then you die of old age and I never have a chance to tell you?"
"I don't understand," Picard said, helplessly, because this confession from Q upended everything he thought he knew about the entity. "Are you saying you're... in love with me?"
"We don't use that term, in the Continuum. But... it hurts to think about the fact that you'll die someday. It hurts to think of you coming to harm. It's not supposed to feel this way. I'm not supposed to be involved. I'm supposed to care about your whole species, not about you personally." He closed his eyes. "It wasn't always like this. It snuck up on me. I tried to pretend it wasn't there but the other Q know. That's why my enemies went after you. Because I wouldn't have risked myself for any other mortal. Probably not even Kathy. I'm grateful to her and I like her but I don't... I don't feel about her like I do about you." Q folded his arms over his chest. "You can now commence with the laughing at me."
He looked so broken, so certain that nothing he had just said could possibly matter except as a way for Picard to humiliate him. Picard leaned down and gently kissed him. Just a small peck, but on the lips. His own tingled when they touched as if Q had electricity running through his body.
Q blinked at him. "...What?"
"I won't pretend to be in love with you, Q," Picard said. "But I'm... I'm not nearly as opposed... I... oh, the devil with it." He looked down into the entity's face. "I'm attracted to you. I've always been, but you were dangerous and adversarial and I couldn't let down my guard. I found you fascinating and provoking and I couldn't stand the way you belittled my crew and me, but I felt more alive, more challenged, when having a simple conversation with you than any number of negotiations with dull diplomats or orbiting a new planet waiting for my away team to report on the exciting things I wasn't allowed to go down there and find with them." He breathed deeply. "This is going to be a very difficult time. We'll be in each other's company the whole time, and we have to work together. It is probably a very bad idea to try to explore a romantic relationship in the midst of all that... but given the tendency you and I have to end up in shouting matches with each other... perhaps something that makes us more inclined to see the humanity in the other would not, in fact, be terrible."
"That word." Q rolled his eyes. "I can't believe I've fallen for such a bigot. Humanity, like that's a good thing."
"Would you prefer if I said personhood?"
"Actually, yes. Yes, I would prefer that. I'm not human, even if I'm in a human body at the moment, but I am a person." He sat up and put his arms around Picard again. "It's still cold, Jean-Luc. Lay down with me."
Picard let himself be drawn down, but didn't spoon; he remained on his other side, still facing Q. "If you're willing... given what we've just been discussing... there are other ways to generate heat."
Q grinned. "I am apparently wrong in my prediction about the supernovas."
"It must be a novel experience for you."
"No, you're frequently wrong. Being in a position where you benefit by admitting to it."
Q laughed. "All right, then, show me."
Picard leaned in for another kiss.
The fire had gone out by what Picard assumed was morning; there was no daylight in the cave. He put his shirt on and went up the incline, out of the cave.
All three suns were visible in the sky again... visibly closer to one another. And there was still so much work to do if they were going to survive the syzygy. Nothing had changed.
But everything had.