"Q, get off my ship!"
Surprised, Captain Jean-Luc Picard looked up from his desk. He stared at the omnipotent being sitting on the couch in his ready room. "Do you mind?"
"Mind what?" asked Q innocently.
"Letting me say that? If it wouldn't be too much trouble?"
"I just thought I'd get all that nonsense and bother out of the way," said Q light-heartedly. "You know I won't leave and that you can't make me go, so it's just as well that you don't have the chance to tell me so."
"I should have known," Picard muttered, sighing heavily. "'All good things must come to an end...'"
"Yes, yes, I remember saying that. So?"
Picard fixed Q with a space-cold glare. "And bad things never do."
"Very funny. I must laugh. Hah. Yes, too funny. Why, you might even be acquiring a sense of humor."
"No, Q, I'm not." Picard continued the stern look for another few moments, then sighed, his features relaxing into a resigned muddle. "Well, what do you want?"
"Can't an old friend just drop by to say hello?"
"You aren't, and you never have," Picard answered dryly.
"Then this will be a first." Q sprung up off the couch as though by lounging there, he had somehow temporarily confined the energy of seventeen suns into one small spot and only by exploding up off of it could he relieve some of the driving pressure. He leaned over Picard's desk, hands spread on top of it, invisible darts of energy breaking away from his body, striking the captain like tiny bursts of static electricity. "Are we friends, Jean-Luc?"
"I would like to say that we are not enemies," Picard answered cautiously. "You have done me and my ship both good and bad services in the past. I can't say that I trust you, not after the Borg, but I don't hate you or think that you're evil."
Q stared down at him for a moment, then swung away, pacing feverishly. "You're wrong about me. So wrong that you cannot know. You should have trusted me before. No, you should not have. You should not have done anything other than you did do, because you did all you could have done with your feeble human understanding. But I should not have come to like or trust you."
Suddenly, Q stopped pacing. "You should keep your skepticism, Jean-Luc. It'll protect you."
"Protect me from what?"
"From what has to happen." Q threw himself back onto the couch and amused himself by creating small bursts of light and then dissipating them harmlessly. His head fell onto the armrest. "Why don't you like me, Jean-Luc? I suppose I know." He waved at Picard, who had come around politely to take a chair. "It's all there in your manner, in everything you've ever said to me or thought about me. You dislike my unrestrained nature, my flamboyance, the way I don't kowtow to the infinite variety of rules that you have hedged about yourself."
Picard cocked his head. "Q, what the devil are you talking about?"
Q turned his head, discontinuing the discharges of energy for the moment. "I asked you if you liked me."
"I heard that. I'm afraid I don't understand the question. Why are you asking if I like you?"
"I can feel the disgust in your mind," Q said, not opening his eyes. "You don't have to tell me you find the idea of friendship with me ridiculous and repugnant." His voice was very calm, the voice of a person who is attempting to very sincerely apologize for something that they do not regret. "I withdraw the question."
"Very well," Picard said.
"Don't be so cold and polite. It makes my skin crawl."
"It seems I have nothing else to say. You've denied the possibility that I can have you removed from the Enterprise, refused to disclose the nature of your business here, and now excluded the option of my being polite to you. I suppose I must consider this conversation to be at an end."
He made to stand up, and Q let him.
Picard reached the viewport before he realized that Q was still in the room and not leaving. "Did you want to talk to me about something?"
"Of course not. I simply adore lolling about on this uncomfortable couch for no reason."
"Then why the devil don't you get to the point?"
"Why the devil," asked Q, mimicking Picard's tone exactly, "don't you get a new swear word? You're so repressed. It's a wonder what I see in you."
"And what do you see in me?"
"Hope," Q said succinctly.
"Hope for what? For some sort of friendship? Q, I don't want to be impolite, but I don't believe that I've ever indicated that..." Picard ran out of words, and indeed, concepts to describe what he meant. The idea had simply not occurred to him.
"You're lovely when you're disconcerted," Q said. "But, no, you've refused. I... never mind. You're the lowly human and I the omnipotent immortal. It wasn't why I came here anyway."
"But you are... err... interested in some sort of relationship with me?"
"Forget I said anything on the subject."
Q regarded him with an interested gaze. "You do realize that I can force you to forget if I want, and if you keep annoying me in this fashion, I may very well do it."
"You won't," Picard said firmly. "You mentioned it for some reason, and you wouldn't have said it if you didn't have a motive. You're too entrenched in your plots and schemes to do that."
"O, ye of too great faith. How little you know me."
"You said you had another reason for coming here. What was it?"
"Jean-Luc, do you know what you're for?"
"Why you were made. What the purpose of your existence is. Do you know?"
"Are you going to tell me why you're here or not? Q, I'm losing patience with this conversation and your irrelevant asides. I have important work to do..."
"Do you?" Q asked, making a motion towards the desk. A flame of light reached towards it from his cupped hands.
Picard started. "Please..."
"Save your petty work? It's all quite meaningless, you know. Or you would know if you had any idea of the purpose of your existence."
The flame had retreated the moment that Picard said the word 'please'.
Picard turned away from the view of the stars. "You do not have to demand my attention, Q. Only give me a good reason for your presence here. Explain yourself. It isn't necessary to compel me with displays of power or cloak your meaning in riddles. Get to the point."
"Ah, but the riddle is the point, Jean-Luc. The heart of the solution is in how it was done. I could tell you what I wanted and what I was here for, and it would mean as much to you as though I had said, 'Two eggs, five pounds of butter and a live hog'. It would be literally incomprehensible."
"Very well." Picard sat back down in the chair. "You asked what my purpose in life is. I would say that, at this point in time, my purpose is to serve the Federation and the people it represents to the best of my abilities."
"A cog in a cosmic chain."
"I'm afraid that isn't good enough."
Picard stiffened, and asked coldly. "Is this some sort of test?"
"No, it's not. Not yet. Or at least, not in any form you would recognize. Your answers are meaningless, pre-determined."
"Then why ask me? Why put me through this?"
Q started to give what looked to be an angry response, then stopped himself. "Are you my friend, Jean-Luc?"
"I believe I already answered that question."
"You not-answered it in your finest oratorical form, you mean. Avoided giving an answer with great diplomatic skill. That's why I like you, you know. One of the reasons, at any rate. You've always had such a way with words. A Q could learn a lot from a human like you." He created a deep blue glowing radiance and allowed it to remain within his fingers, staring at it meditatively. "You are a friend, Jean-Luc. As good as any I have, perhaps better. I... if I could hope that you might come to accept me and not send me away, but rather come to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy yours, then you'd be a much, much better friend to me than any of my fellow Q. That's why I came to you."
"Why you..." Picard raised his brows. Is something wrong with Q? The idea was almost unthinkable, but... "Is something wrong? Clearly, you haven't lost your powers... at least..."
"At least, you hope I have not," the entity finished for him, bluntly. "No, I haven't. It's something worse. I... I have discovered why I was made."
"Made? I thought that the Q were born, like Amanda."
"A special case. An unnatural contrivance in an otherwise unblemished record of Q reproduction. A contrivance of humanity that your species could so seduce two of its members into bastardizing our race." Shadows deepened in Q's face, the light flickering over him. "You humans could reproduce entirely on the created level right now if you so desired. I don't know why you don't. You could greatly improve the species that way."
"While we do correct genetic abnormalities, we prefer to reproduce the natural way..."
"Pshaw. You mean you prefer to chance all to luck, giving away your best opportunity to speed up your evolution."
"Mankind has had unfortunate experiences with genetic engineering."
Q nodded. "Ah yes. Man and superman, with superman losing to man. How humiliating. Well, I suppose that's that for your race. The monkey-man wins out again over the evolved man."
"And you think that the Q have found a better way."
"Yes. Or no."
"Which is it?"
Q glared at him. "Why so many questions? Can't you ever figure anything out on your own? Why do I always have to provide the easy answers for you?"
Q subsided. "That's why I like you so much. Underneath that Starfleet brainwashing, you aren't really as stupid as you look. It's a perfect system, you know. Child-Q created from their parents' substance, carefully selected to fulfill a purpose in their generation, and no unauthorized reproduction allowed so that all variances can be those already planned for. A tidy flow of continuation from one generation to the next."
"You have a purpose?" Picard asked, just now realizing exactly the meaning of Q's point. "You mean that you were created to... to... test and judge us? To badger me and let my crew be killed?"
"No. Not exactly. Or yes, I suppose, depending on how you look at it."
"And how do you look at it?" Picard asked, his jaw clenching as he thought of the crew members who had died when Q gave them over to the Borg. It was long ago now, and much had passed between he and Q since, but it still hurt when he thought of it, as it hurt any good captain to have people under their command die, even when it was necessary, as it most decidedly had not been.
"Those were minor aspects. Symptoms. Small parts of my overall purpose." He banished the light and looked soberly at Picard. "I have discovered what I am for and it terrifies me."
"What is it?"
"I am the final arbiter of the human race. I was created to understand you."
"Excuse me, I don't understand. I thought you said you were far older than humanity, that you had existed long before we were even 'goo', as you put it."
"Yes, I was. Are you really this dense? After all you went through to correct your own mistake, you still can't understand a simple thing like this?"
Picard thought hard. 'Your own mistake' had to be a reference to the paradox that had almost uncreated the universe. So... "Time isn't linear. That's what you're trying to tell me, isn't it?"
"Yes. Humanity was assessed -- yours is a fast-growing and vigorous -- if vigorously stupid -- race. I was created after you were evaluated, and raised before it ever came into existence so that I should be old enough to enmesh myself in such a snare as this one."
"Conundrum, riddle, parable. It's a pallid concept in your language. Humans are so stodgy and unwilling to challenge their assumptions."
"Haven't you already tested us enough?"
"The trial never ends," Q solemnly intoned and then laughed ironically. "How wrong I was. Yes, I have tested you enough to make up my mind, if I ever needed to do so. Judging humanity is what I am for, and if I had but known it, I could have saved everyone a great deal of time and made my decision the first time I encountered your toy ship. But I was unaware of it, and fulfilled my purpose unthinkingly. It comes naturally to me. Too naturally."
"What are you trying to tell me, Q?" Picard asked, with growing emotion. "That you are the final arbiter of our fate, and that you're here to wipe the human race from existence? How many times will you put us through this? You said that the human race had potential, why--"
"Do you know, Jean-Luc," Q said, cutting Picard off, "that the hardest thing about knowing what you're for is not liking it? You have your purpose, and you enjoy it. But would you still like it if your parents had built you to be a Starfleet captain? If every event in your life had happened for the express purpose of shaping you to this end? Can you conceive of waking up one day in that engineered existence and realizing that you didn't like it? What would you do then? You are a Starfleet captain. You do it well, and can do nothing else so well. Your engineered society has no other place for you, and now you realize that this is what you must do whether you like it or no, and you must with self-examined hate continue in the same position you formerly loved. How could you react?"
"I do not know," Picard said levelly. "But I would find some way."
"Ah, ah, ah," Q said chidingly. "I don't believe that you would. You found your existence as a lowly carrier of spears humiliating after you so charmingly altered your future with my assistance. You would find a way out or resign to despair."
"Perhaps I would. I can't say. I hope I would find some way to come to terms with my situation."
"You and I both know what you'd do, Jean-Luc. I could show you again by way of a reminder, but it would be uninteresting and pointless. And you would dislike me for it. I find that... right now I..." he looked up at the ceiling. "I must judge you, Jean-Luc. You and all humanity. The hour grows late. I have already judged you, have found humanity wanting from my first meeting with your ship, and before. My first judgment seems a trifle na‹ve now -- I seized at the obvious conclusion without weighing all of the evidence fully -- but in essence, it was correct."
Picard asked the quiet, necessary, question. "What will you do?"
"By the standards I was created to enforce, humanity is guilty. There is no question what I must do to a guilty child-race. I must destroy your capability to influence any other races, by taking away your space capability, and ensuring that you do not seek outside contact again until your race is ready for it, and ready to handle it in a mature manner."
"We can only progress with contact," Picard said seriously, with dignity and power. "Your judgment before rested upon the savagery of humanity's past. If you punish us now for that, you will stop us from growing. Our history shows how much we have accomplished since our progression from Earth. Our ascent into peace is a direct result of our development of warp drive and our contact with other species. We have accomplished a great deal in the past two centuries. We can accomplish more with more time. Don't destroy the best hope we have of progressing further."
"You have no hope, Jean-Luc, and no time. Humanity's actions are manifest and plain, both in the past and in the present. You are exactly as I named you, childish and savage, and you must be stopped and confined."
Picard shook his head. "I cannot agree with you."
"You're human. I wouldn't expect you to agree."
"It's not that. Or not entirely. I honestly believe that the Federation is an enlightened coalition of planets and races. Our standards are high, and we do our best to meet them in an honorable fashion. The Prime Directive..."
"Oh, please," Q said, throwing up his hands. As glittering points of light fell from them, he gathered the silvery remnants together. "Don't mention the Prime Directive. Anything but that."
Picard continued stubbornly on. "The Prime Directive is an excellent example of how we have enacted strictures to protect other cultures from outside influence. We stand for peace and justice. Our actions may not always be the best, but our intentions are nothing less than pure."
"I actually think you believe that."
"Of course I believe it." Picard stared at Q, who seemed engrossed more with his light sculptures than the conversation. "In any case, why are you compelled to judge the human race? Humanity has risen out of its savage period, and we are now progressing steadily towards a peaceful future. There are other races that seem far more suited to judgment than ours, the Borg, for instance or the--"
Q looked up sharply. "Don't blot your copybook further by attempting comparisons. You aren't them. I was created for humanity, not for any other race, and I will not tell you what their judgment is or will be."
"That's hardly an adequate explanation, Q."
The other sighed. "I'll give you a hint -- nothing more, so don't try cajolery. The Borg destroy weak races. They have their place in the evolutionary chain. The Continuum approves of evolution."
"And humanity? Why are you condemning us?"
"Because it's necessary. Because of your invasiveness and your immaturity. And your energy. Do you realize that the Federation has in the past hundred years transformed its most terrible enemy into an ally and subdued the second most terrible, causing that race to sink into ruin and degradation?"
"If you're referring to the Klingons and the Romulans," Picard said stiffly, "I believe that the Federation acted properly..."
"By its own standards, perhaps. But not by higher standards. The kind of standards that the Q Continuum holds. You have choked off the growth of one race and subjugated the other, stifling its own evolution. And those are merely the most promising races."
"Promising?" Picard choked. "If you call us savage, then the Romulans surely..."
"I can't make a judgment on them, Jean-Luc. And don't ask me to. You've had enough hints already. I wasn't created for that. But I can say that they were growing in their own fashion -- and you stopped them. That is the act of a child-race, make no mistake. Savage is the wrong word -- I chose too quickly when I described you that way. Humanity is an infestation, a weed that grows peacefully -- but chokes out all other life in its unchecked sprawl. You have homogenized hundreds of other species into your 'Federation', forcing them to grow in unnatural patterns. And all under your guidelines. And you wonder why I laugh at the notion of your Prime Directive? Hah. The only directive of the human species is to take all and remake it in its own image."
"And this is why you are doing what you're doing? You consider this to be adequate motivation to completely stop our civilization's growth? Q, you must see how wrong that is. Do you deny the potential you said you saw in humanity before?"
"No. You have potential. I... came to see that, in your conviction and your principles. But the potential I see in your species is dangerous. Yes, you can become more than you are -- but the cost to the other races you will pervert in your quest to evolve is too great. The Continuum cannot lose so much variety to save the spawn of one insignificant planet."
Picard refused to give in. "You said your purpose terrified you. You said that you considered me to be a friend. Why are you doing this, Q? I embody many of the faults you have ascribed to humanity. I consider the Prime Directive to be an important standard in the growth of the Federation; we have progressed, and while you may consider that our progress has ruined other races, I say that it has helped them. We have built communication where there was none, and increased enlightenment in our own way. Perhaps it is not something that the Continuum approves of, but it is positive change to my mind. I believe this to be true, and I have sworn myself to upholding these principles. If any single person can be held to blame for the crimes you say humanity has committed, I certainly can. How can you approve of me and not of the rest of humankind?"
"It's very easy." Q stared at the captain. "You are beautiful. I can admire humanity aesthetically, and delight in the wonder you humans have created so easily and unknowingly. Perhaps I'm influenced because I was created for you, but I think not. Homo sapiens is far more attractive than the ice-cold rigidity of the Borg, or the tradition-bound mentality of the Vulcans -- your culture offers total freedom within a structure that preserves security. Do you realize how unusual that is? You change at a dizzying pace by the standards of the Continuum -- it's frightening even to contemplate what you may become if you are allowed to continue as you have started."
"If you admire humanity, then why--?"
Q laughed bitterly. "Why do I condemn you? It's quite simple really. Do you know how many races manage to influence other races? To amalgamate rather than destroy? A small percentage in the overall total. And that number dwarfs the sum of races who have influenced the Continuum."
Picard drew in his breath sharply. It was true that he had argued with Q before, and had seemed to have some small success at convincing Q to spare them both from the Borg and from the time paradox that had threatened to keep humanity from ever having existed, but surely...
"You personally have influenced me, your judge. You as a species have successfully infiltrated our numbers, by birth becoming something that we would never allow otherwise. Do you think Riker would have become one of us if he had chosen to keep the powers I had given him? Never. And yet, humanity has its representative in the Continuum's councils.
"I may admire you as a race and personally," continued Q harshly, "I may even find you good. Most other cultures are stultifyingly strict, and restrain their members into a small number of conscripted roles. You allow personal freedom. And yet, if I do not find you wanting, I will be allowing a race to grow which assimilates all others far more insidiously than the Borg, that steals others' cultures and makes its victims like it. You will consume all life that you are able to affect."
The captain wondered how much Q's judgment of humanity was motivated by concern for his own race, and how much for the future of other races. If humanity could change the Continuum -- although Picard found that unlikely -- then the Continuum might fear for its own existence. He demanded, "You find it necessary to destroy our civilization because we threaten you. Is that it?"
Q's light sculpture collapsed into a glowing silver sphere. He examined it with deep concentration. "If you wish," he said slowly, "I will agree to spare humanity for the term of your life. I... You care greatly about humanity. I find... I am incapable of destroying it as long as you are part of it. I can wait -- will wait until you are no longer part of it."
"That's not acceptable, Q." It would devastate him, Picard thought. To know that any chance he took with his life could have such consequences... to realize with his last breath that this was the end of all civilization for his kind and to be aware that he would be spared. Only he. And with his death condemn his race.
"It's the best that I can do," Q snapped, abandoning the sphere altogether. "I was created to pass judgment on humanity. And this is the only judgment humanity deserves."
"You've avoided answering my question. Why spare only me? Surely I deserve the same judgment. I have influenced you as much as any other individual. I could be considered even a greater threat to the Continuum itself than any other individual. Unless--" Picard narrowed his eyes, suddenly realizing something. "You said humanity was guilty by the standards you were created to enforce. The Continuum's standards. You also talked about disliking your purpose."
"I believe that the monkey boy is about to have a revelation. That I should actually like someone who could miss such an excruciatingly obvious point... I must be mad."
Q had different standards than the Continuum's. Q felt differently than his superiors. Picard felt the first stab of hope. "Is your judgment binding? Is the Continuum required to stand by it?"
"Traditionally, yes. Practically speaking, the Continuum as a whole can overrule the decision of any individual Q. However, by creating me for this task, they have more or less designated me to act on their behalf."
"Then if you decided to pardon humanity, you could?"
"I can't decide that. It's wrong." Anxiety emanated from Q in shimmering waves that distorted the perspective of the room, each wave growing in magnitude as it moved further out from its source before dissipating harmlessly against the walls of the ready room. "It's against everything I was made for. The Continuum--"
Picard did what very few mortals would have dared to do -- interrupt a Q. "Is the Continuum the highest moral authority? You yourself feel that the decision they created you to make is wrong. Don't your own feelings have validity? Must you do what the Continuum demands? Is it right that they destroy us merely because we may one day prove to be a threat to them? Is the Continuum such a stellar example of evolutionary achievement if they would -- to use your word -- 'pervert' humanity by taking what we have become and reducing us to savagery? That would be an even greater change to our race than the 'crimes' of which you have you accused us."
"You then also wish me to rebel? To decide against the Continuum and for death and disorder? To choose the right to die, and by dying, cause change to sweep into their stifled minds? To choose humanity's survival, and thus let you stray even further from the structured order of evolution?"
The captain wondered where 'the right to die' had come from. But Q seemed to be changing his mind, and Picard pressed hard at that. "I am asking you to honestly examine your own beliefs and decide for yourself -- not simply for the Continuum -- whether humanity must be destroyed. Out of the friendship you say you have for me, test your beliefs. Challenge your assumptions."
Q sniffed. "Even if I thought you were right, the Continuum--"
"The Continuum created you to judge us. Not to destroy us. Your stated purpose is to be humanity's arbiter. Be that then. Make your own decision, founded in your own knowledge of what is right. I am convinced that you were correct before -- humanity does have potential. If we are allowed to grow and prosper, we will prove that potential."
Q gave him an enigmatic look. "Such beautiful words. Really, Jean-Luc. I think I come here just to listen to you talk."
"Then why do you do most of the talking?"
"Habit." Q looked at Picard for a long time. "Are you then my friend?"
"I don't know."
"Strange. I also am plagued with not knowing. My course of action has become unclear. I must think further on this."
"Q," Picard said. "Thank you."
Q disappeared without further word, the light fading slowly and unwillingly behind him.
Picard did not expect anything more. Humanity's fate rested in the balance again, and his only hope was that Q might question the Continuum and so bring potential doom upon himself. And the captain had not answered Q's question about how he felt towards the entity. Not even in his own mind. Q would revolt against the Continuum for nothing more than friendship, and Picard could not say that such a friendship existed between them. Or that it ever would.
With a troubled heart, Picard abandoned the work on his desk and retired to his quarters.