Only Human, Part I: Starbase 56/Enterprise
Commodore Anderson was fond of saying that Starbase 56 was where masochists who enjoyed headaches got themselves stationed. It was true for any of the base's crew, and doubly so for Anderson herself. There were times when she honestly enjoyed her command here, and the challenges that Starbase 56's unique occupant brought with him. Times when she did not kick herself and wonder why she hadn't accepted the promotion to an admiralship on Earth. Times when she felt as if being in command of Starbase 56 was the next best thing to captaining a starship, or perhaps even better.
Now was not one of those times.
She felt the headache coming on, worse than usual, as Lieutenant Veloz's voice came over her comm badge. "Commodore. We have a situation."
No need to ask who the author of the "situation" was. "What's he done this time?" Anderson sighed.
"He's refusing to see the Klingon delegation, sir. Says that they're far too primitive and underevolved to understand anything he might try to teach them."
A particularly sore nerve throbbed behind her left eye. "He said this in front of the Klingons, of course."
"Of course, sir," Veloz agreed.
"Have the Klingons been restrained?"
"The Klingons have shown remarkable forbearance. They merely offered to rip out his spine and strangle him with it."
"What did he say?"
"He just laughed, sir."
"Tell him I'll rip out his spine and strangle him with it." Anderson amused herself a moment by vividly imagining herself doing just that.
"That wouldn't be very good for your blood pressure, sir," Veloz answered dryly.
She took a deep breath. "Right. Belay that last order, Lieutenant. I'll be right down."
Six years ago, the Galaxy-class starship Enterprise, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, had made first contact with an immortal, omnipotent and extremely arrogant entity called Q, who had put the starship's crew on trial for humanity's crimes. Picard and his crew had managed to persuade Q to rescind his death sentence, but in the process had unfortunately piqued Q's interest. The obnoxious entity had returned several times to torment the Enterprise crew, usually claiming to be acting in the name of his race, the Q Continuum.
It had been difficult for Starfleet analysts to understand why such a vastly powerful and advanced race would send- or even have- such a petulant, immature emissary. As it turned out, Starfleet analysts had been right to question. Three years ago, the Q entity had turned up on the Enterprise for the last time, claiming that his race had stripped him of his powers and transformed him into a mortal to punish him for misusing his abilities. He had indeed proven to be indistinguishable from human by any scan known to Federation technology, and in possession of no more power than any human had. It had been decided that he would be relocated to a starbase, where he would give Federation scientists the benefits of his millions of years of accumulated knowledge in exchange for protection from various enemies he'd made in his years as an omnipotent bully.
That was when Anderson's headaches began.
When she'd first been offered the assignment, she'd jumped at the chance. Q represented vast untapped potential for knowledge and exploration. If she had to be confined to a starbase- and since her spinal injury, it was either a starbase or an Earthbound desk- she was eager to have it be a starbase that would be a magnet for the Federation's best and brightest. The thought of fighting off numerous aliens bent on revenge hadn't frightened her; she had commanded a starship on the border patrol for the Romulan Neutral Zone, once, and had a great deal of tactical experience. But a chance to talk with an entity who knew all the secrets of the universe, and had promised to reveal them in exchange for protection, had excited her almost as much as the prospect of commanding a starship had, once.
Then she'd actually met Q. He had, in ten minutes, insulted her intelligence, implied that her people were incompetent, started calling her by her first name, and made outrageous demands for his living quarters, as well as complaining about the decor, the ambient temperature of the starbase, and the clothing patterns programmed into his personal uniform replicator. Her headache had never entirely gone away since. And that was before she had to start dealing with the scientists who came to see Q and thought she had some control over his obnoxious behavior. Or with the men and women under her command, who were loyal to a fault, but pushed to the limits of human tolerance by Q's remarkable ability to find and exploit weak points. Anderson lived with the nightmare that she would discover Q dead in his quarters one day, murdered by someone he'd pushed too far, and that she would have to prosecute the poor bastard instead of handing him the medal he'd deserve.
The Klingon delegation accosted her on her way to Q's quarters. "Commodore! A word with you!" one said.
She tried to remember who this one was. Dr. Morakh, that was it. The head of the Klingon Physics Institute, and the unofficial leader of this delegation of scientists. "Dr. Morakh. I'm sorry about-"
"We have waited for six months for an opportunity to speak to this creature about physics. Not to be insulted by him."
"It isn't you, Doctor. He does this to everyone."
"He has agreed to see any allies of the Federation in exchange for his protection. If he refuses to carry out his end of the bargain, I would recommend that the Klingon High Command pressure the Federation into withdrawing that protection, and I would encourage other races to do likewise."
"He will talk to you, Dr. Morakh. I promise. I haven't used up my bag of tricks."
"I sincerely hope so."
"Give us five minutes alone with him," one of the other Klingons suggested, in a tone that promised death. "He will talk to us then."
"I'm afraid I couldn't allow that, as tempting as it sounds. He's too valuable to harm-"
"Oh, we wouldn't harm him," the scientist said, smiling ferally. "It would be dishonorable to harm such a weak, unarmed opponent."
"But you wouldn't have to tell him that, would you?" Anderson murmured. "Very tempting, doctor, but no. Frightening the living daylights out of him might get him to talk, but he won't say anything useful if he's that scared. He'll just whine a lot. No, if you'd all just hang on for an hour or so, I promise you he'll see you."
"We will wait one hour. No more," Morakh said.
Anderson nodded, and headed down the corridor past them.
Q was waiting in the foyer of his suite, with Lieutenant Veloz. Obviously he'd expected her, or he'd still be in the suite proper. With a bright smile, he said, "Commodore Anderson! Come to slum in the gulag with us poor wage slaves?"
When Anderson was feeling sympathetic, she could see how miserable Q was by the ravages time had played on him. Three years seemed to have aged him ten. He was thin and drawn, losing his hair (which he mockingly claimed was because he wanted to be just like his idol Picard), and generally looked like hell. Right now, however, she was feeling anything but sympathetic, and the only thing she noticed about his appearance was his smug smile. "What right did you have to refuse those Klingons, Q?" she demanded.
Q leaned back in his chair, looking bored. "I already explained my reasons. They simply aren't advanced enough to benefit from my knowledge."
"There's an old Earth saying that applies to this situation perfectly. It goes something like this: 'Don't try to teach physics to a gorilla. It only wastes your time and annoys the gorilla.'"
"These particular 'gorillas' have wasted a great deal of time getting to see you. They're going to be a lot more annoyed if you don't teach them."
"It's hardly my fault how evolutionarily unprepared they are." He sat up straight and looked at Anderson with an expression that would have been sincere on anyone else. "Don't get me wrong. Klingons are great if you need beings to beat their mighty thews and charge in where angels fear to tread. All of their evolution has been aimed at making the perfect warriors: strong, tough, violent and unimaginative. Marvelous killing machines, but they're not much on the higher brain functions. I mean, they make you humans look positively advanced, and that's really saying quite a bit."
"Q, your bigotry is not the issue here. The issue-"
"Oh, I wouldn't call it 'bigotry', Eleanor." Anderson did not quite clench her teeth. Q used her first name quite deliberately when he wanted to annoy her. "'Bigotry' implies an irrational, unreasoning prejudice. I did quite a bit of research on the Klingons back when I was omniscient, and I'd say I remember a significant portion of it. I speak of facts, not blind bias."
"Regardless of what you want to call it, those Klingons want to talk to you. It's completely irrelevant whether you think they're capable of understanding you or not. These are Klingon scientists-"
"Now there's an oxymoron if I ever heard one," Q muttered.
"-in good standing, the brightest of their race-"
"Which is rather like saying 'the best-looking Ferengi'."
Anderson ignored him. "-and they want to talk to you. By your agreement with Starfleet, you are bound to talk to anyone Starfleet invites to talk to you."
"And if I don't? What will you do? Throw me to the wolves?"
"Quite frankly, Q, nothing would give me greater joy right now than to toss you out the nearest airlock."
He was completely unfazed by the comment. Either he was positive she wouldn't do it- which was true enough- or he simply didn't much care anymore. "Perhaps it would. But you can hardly afford to indulge such fantasies, now can you? I may be the most valuable commodity your precious Federation currently has. You would have lost to the Borg two years ago if not for the information I gave your tacticians and scientists. You wouldn't dare rescind my protection without a much better reason than a few disgruntled Klingons."
Anderson sighed. "I suppose you're right. If you refuse to talk to a few scientists, there really isn't much we can do about it."
"I'm glad you see it my way," Q said, surprised. He was obviously waiting for the other shoe to drop, so Anderson obligingly dropped it. She turned to Lieutenant Veloz.
"Confine Q to his quarters, without computer access, until he agrees to see the Klingons."
Q shook his head. "Oh, no. Not this again. I'm not falling for it this time."
"'Falling for this'? This isn't a bluff, Q." Anderson stood. "Lieutenant-"
Veloz nodded and took Q's arm, pulling him to his feet. Q yanked his arm free. "You can't do this."
"I just did."
"You know perfectly well what confinement without computer access would do to me. My life is tedious enough as it is. You'd make it utterly unbearable."
"I suggest you decide which you find more unbearable- boredom or talking to Klingons."
"You don't know what you're setting in motion, Eleanor," he warned. "How many times are you going to pull the same trick? It's gotten very tiresome, you know."
"So has your obstructionist behavior. It's my job to make sure the people under my command do their jobs- and that means you. Now make up your mind. Will you talk to the Klingons, or spend a few weeks staring at the ceiling?"
Q stared at her for several seconds, his expression unreadable. Finally he sighed with excessive boredom. "If it's so important to you, I'll talk to your precious Klingons," he said. "Though I can't guarantee they'll get anything out of it."
"I thought you'd see reason," Anderson said approvingly. She turned to Veloz. "Monitor the conversation. If you think he's being deliberately dense, get Commander Sekal to sit in, and if Sekal thinks he's being deliberately dense, lock him away."
"Yes, sir," Veloz said, with enthusiasm. No doubt the opportunity to lock Q up was one the crew looked forward to eagerly.
Commander Sekal, the head of Starbase 56's Science Division, was one of the few people who could tell the difference between Q genuinely having a hard time expressing a concept in terms his audience could understand, and Q being deliberately obscure. In addition, as a Vulcan he was less vulnerable to Q's unpleasantness than most, and thus could deal with Q even at the entity's worst without losing his temper as most of the humans on the base would. Anderson found him rather cold and aloof personally, as she found most Vulcans, but she felt she owed her sanity to him.
"So how did it go?" she asked.
"It was less unpleasant than I'd have conjectured," Sekal replied, his hands folded neatly in his lap. "Initially he was offensive and obstructionist. When Lieutenant Veloz and I reminded him that he was in danger of losing computer privileges, he claimed that he no longer cared, and that he didn't 'have to put up with any of this'. Lieutenant Veloz proposed that we might leave him with the Klingons for a few minutes, to which he replied that he couldn't care less. At this point, I suggested that if he were truly so apathetic, perhaps he should enter sickbay for a few weeks of observation. That seemed to be effective- he made a few outraged protests, but calmed down quickly and behaved reasonably afterward."
"Reasonably?" Anderson asked.
"As reasonably as one can expect, from Q. Commodore, I think there may be reason for concern."
"Frankly, Q seemed to give in too easily. He calmed down too quickly- as if he no longer cared enough to press the issue, which would be unusual for him. I am hardly an expert on human emotions, or Q's emotions for that matter, but I was left with the distinct impression that he is more depressed than usual."
Anderson sighed. "He's always depressed. And he's always taking it out on the rest of us."
"I have reason to believe it has been steadily getting worse."
"I'll have Counselor Medellin talk to him."
"That might be a wise idea."
As Sekal left, Anderson checked on Medellin. The counselor was off-shift right now, relaxing in the rocketball court. It would be a shame to drag her away from her free time to have her talk to Q- besides, Q was always depressed. It could wait until tomorrow.
She took a deep breath. In an hour or so, she would get to go off-shift herself, at least if no emergencies came up. The day's paperwork was done, the Klingons had left reasonably satisfied, and there were no visitors scheduled for another week or so. Her head didn't even hurt overmuch. Finally, she had time to read her mail and the Starfleet newsbriefs.
Halfway through the newsbriefs, she paused over one item. A query to the main newsbase delivered no more information about the notice than the newsbrief had contained. She stared at the brief for several seconds, trying to decide whether Q's right to hear this outweighed her desire to not deal with him right now. Eventually, she sighed and stood up.
Q was in his suite, sprawled on cushions on the floor and listening to music as he read. He put down the viewer as Anderson entered. "What is it now?" he asked, annoyed. "I was nice to your Klingons."
"This isn't about that. I just got some information I thought you might want to know."
"Really." Q sat up. "Enlighten me."
"I'm afraid that Captain Picard is dead."
Q blinked. "You have an interesting definition of 'want to know', Commodore," he said. "I needed to hear this? I needed to be any more depressed than I already am?"
"Forgive me if I've intruded on your vast self-pity," Anderson said sarcastically, "but I thought you had the right to know." She started to turn toward the door.
"How did it happen?" Q demanded.
Anderson turned back. "It didn't say. Just that he died in the line of duty."
"It was probably something stupid," Q muttered. "Something unworthy of him. He should have taken me up on my offer when I wanted to join his crew, when I still had my powers. I could have protected him..."
"I don't think he wanted your protection."
"Foolish of him. Now he's dead." Q looked away. "Funny. Ever since the incident with the Calamarain, I've thought Jean-Luc would probably outlive me. Silly of me, I suppose... he's been out there in the middle of nowhere, with no protection, while I have an entire starbase dedicated to protecting me... I can't imagine him dead, you know that? It's not as if I haven't seen mortals die before. I've outlived thousands of beings I knew, before. But it comes as a surprise, this time, somehow..."
"I'm sorry," Anderson said. Just when she thought it was safe to despise Q, he showed some signs of having feelings other than his constant self-pity.
He looked at her. "Commodore, I don't often make personal requests..."
He made them all the time, actually- but no, she knew what he meant. He almost never made requests of any emotional significance. "Go on."
"I'd rather not see any visitors for the next few days, if it's possible."
"I understand." Since he had no visitors scheduled, it wouldn't be difficult to grant him that much. "I think it can be arranged."
After she left, Q walked into the bedroom proper, over to his chest of drawers. He pulled open the top drawer and lifted out a bottle of etching solution. For a minute or so he studied it.
"When I make a decision, you'll be the first to know," he told it, and put it back in the drawer.
The restaurant/lounge was subdued at this hour of the morning; there were enough people that no individual conversation stood out, while not enough for it to be crowded. As Counselor Nian Medellin came in, she had no trouble picking out Q- he sat by himself at a table by a port, staring out at the stars. She was almost surprised he'd shown up. Medellin had purposely asked to meet him in the lounge because he was too intimidating in home territory, like his quarters. He knew precisely how to use his body language to maximize visitors' discomfort- or if he didn't know how, he had an amazing unconscious talent for it- and Medellin was a small woman, while he was a rather tall man. He already had enough of an advantage. She hoped that sitting in a public place, across a table, would protect her enough from his talents at obnoxiousness that she'd be able to help him.
Medellin sat down at the table, across from him. "Would you like to talk about it?"
He didn't look at her, continuing to gaze at the stars. "Talk about what?"
"What's bothering you. Sekal thought you might be more depressed than usual-"
"Sekal, of course, is an expert on human emotion."
"Commodore Anderson agreed with him. Is it the news about Captain Picard?"
She calmed herself silently. He was hurting, and she was base counselor. It didn't matter how unpleasant he was, she had to help him if she could. "I'm very sorry. I know he defended you when you first came here."
"What makes you think this is about Picard?"
"It's natural to be depressed when you've suffered a loss-"
He turned around. "Oh, you're so unbelievably dense. Do you seriously think I would prostrate myself with grief over Picard? This has nothing to do with him. I can't say I was happy to hear the news that he'd died, but to assume that that's what's bothering me is not only illogical, but arrogant in the extreme. Who are you to tell me why I'm depressed?"
"So you admit that you are depressed."
"Of course I'm depressed! I've been depressed since before I got here! You're a poor excuse for a counselor if you haven't noticed by now, Nian."
"I mean that it's gotten worse lately. It has, hasn't it?"
Q turned up his wrists and looked down at them. There were no scars- Dr. Li had done his work well. "I've been wondering what the point to mortal existence is," he said, and looked up at her. "Since you're all going to die in the end anyway, why fight so hard to make it later rather than sooner? In the grand scheme of things, mortal lives are meaningless."
"So you believe?"
"So I know. I don't have the luxury of holding grand illusions about the importance of my fate to the universe. I know exactly how much my life is worth this way. Struggle on for another 80 or 90 years and then what? Death anyway. Why not speed things up? What's the point?"
"The point is the happiness we can enjoy while we're still alive."
"Dear me. I thought the point was supposed to be the difference we could make to the universe. Are you advocating wanton hedonism now?"
"Most of us feel more fulfilled when we're doing something that makes a difference. We have friends that care about us, and people whose company we enjoy, and things we want to do in our lives."
He smiled mirthlessly. "You've just argued my point for me, Counselor. I have no reason to go on living."
Medellin cursed inwardly. Q talked about suicide a lot, and had made two somewhat half-hearted attempts, seemingly more to get attention than to seriously do himself in. This might simply be another ploy. But he sounded sincere this time. "That can't be true. Not entirely."
"Believe what you like, Nian, but I know how I feel. There is no one who cares about me, except as a valuable commodity to the Federation; no one whose company I enjoy anymore; and nothing I particularly want to do. And I think you left out the most important reason you humans go on living- your fear of the unknown. You don't know what death is, and it frightens you- your typical primitive response to that which you don't know and can't understand."
"I don't think that's primitive. We have every reason to fear something as unknown as death."
"But I do know what death is." He looked down again. "And I'm quite certain that avoiding it is not worth all this."
She tried the tactic that had worked last time. "I thought the Continuum told you that if you stuck it out, they might give you your powers back."
Q laughed bitterly. "I believed that for three years. They simply knew how to push my buttons, that's all. I don't seriously believe they ever meant that, now. They won't forgive me."
"You don't know that. What if they were planning on giving it back to you soon, and you kill yourself? You'd be cutting yourself off from immortality."
"And what if they're waiting for me to get tired of their silly game and opt out of it before they give it back? Don't try to second-guess them, Nian. You're only human. Even I wouldn't presume to guess what they're doing anymore, and I used to know them as well as I knew myself."
"You enjoy some things, don't you? You've collected all those antiques from Earth-"
He smirked. "Those were primarily valuable in that it amused me to watch you all scrambling to get them for me. Do you seriously think material toys can keep me happy? You really are a terrible counselor, aren't you?"
"I don't often have patients as determined to be unhappy as you are."
"I'm not determined to be unhappy. It just worked out that way. I'm simply not cut out for living as a human."
"You deny yourself the potential of human life. In all the time you've been here, you've never set foot on a planet, never used the holodeck or any other recreational equipment, had no sexual contact with anyone-"
He grimaced. "Oh, please. I just ate."
"Why do you consider sex so disgusting? It's only a human biological function, like eating and sleeping. There's nothing inherently disgusting about it- or there shouldn't be, to one who didn't grow up under a repressive moral system."
"I think you fail to understand. Eating and sleeping are disgusting. I perform them because I have no choice. I can't keep myself awake indefinitely and if I stopped eating, you'd just force-feed me. But I won't go out of my way to experience a vile human biological function if I don't have to, and sex is not a requirement for human existence."
"Some would say it's a requirement for happy human existence."
"Most of Earth's Orthodox Catholic priests would disagree. Besides, leaving aside the repulsiveness of the act and how silly it looks, who would have me? Don't think I don't know about the opinion people on this station hold of me. Or are you suggesting that you or someone responsible for my welfare would provide me a partner, for the sake of my mental health?" He shook his head. "Even if I wanted it, I wouldn't want it on those terms."
"What about the holodeck?"
"For sex? You are disgusting."
"I meant in general. You never use it, or any of the other recreational facilities."
"What would I use it for? To play for a brief moment at being a god comes a very poor second to actually being one. And the holodeck can't free me from the limitations of this shell. It can only give me what my human senses can perceive. Why can't you understand that the biological facts of my existence are appalling to me? You think I should be glad to be alive, whatever the price. Suppose you were blind, deaf, crippled and confined to a bed. All your sensory knowledge of the world must come in through touch, and you must depend on others to touch you, others who don't even like you. Would you be glad to be alive?"
Medellin shook her head. "You're being self-pitying again, Q. Your situation is not nearly that bad."
"Compared to what I had before? It's worse."
"You can't dwell on the past! It doesn't matter what you had before. What matters is what you are now." She leaned forward. "I agree with you that your lack of friends is a problem, but don't you realize you've done that to yourself? We were ready to welcome you with open arms when you first came, and you antagonized everyone. I think what you need is a vacation."
"Excuse me?" He stared at her as if she had suddenly sprouted an extra head.
"I mean it. Not for very long; we couldn't take the risk that your enemies would track you down away from the safety of the base. But an opportunity to meet new people, and possibly not antagonize them immediately this time; to get out of your routine, maybe find something that you do enjoy doing. From the amounts you've read since you came here, I assume you like to learn new things."
"Nothing I learn is new," he said, scowling. "I used to know everything. I've just forgotten most of it."
"Well, then you enjoy relearning things. Don't you?"
"I suppose so. Inasmuch as I enjoy anything."
"Well, I think that's it. Travel, new experiences, new people- you're too good at antagonizing people for me to believe it's anything but deliberate. If you really wanted to make friends, I think you could. Maybe you could go to Earth. I know you have an interest in Earth history."
"Hardly an interest. I was engaged in the study of humans and their history when I was condemned. Since the knowledge was uppermost in my mind, I remembered most of it."
"Whatever it is. Would you like to go to Earth?"
He sighed. "You won't stop hounding me, will you? Certainly. Schedule a vacation for me. Send me to Earth. I'm sure it's exactly what I need and will solve all my silly problems."
"You don't need to be sarcastic. Just think of it this way. What have you got to lose?"
"Nothing," he said soberly. "Nothing at all."
"All right." Medellin stood up. "I'll talk to the Commodore about it; it might take a few days to schedule. Just hang on, okay? Things aren't as bad as you think they are." She smiled winningly at him. Q stared at her, then shrugged and half-smiled back. Medellin nodded and left the lounge.
Q watched her go, his smile widening and becoming bitter, mocking. Let her entertain herself trying to stave off the inevitable. It was already too late.
He stood up, pushing aside his chair, and walked out of the lounge.
In his quarters, he took the bottle of etching solution out of the drawer again and held it up to the light, popping off the cap. The solution inside was colorless, resembling water. But the strong acidic smell that wafted up from inside spoke of something far harsher to flesh than water would be.
I've held out for so long. Three years is nothing to you, I know. But it's been longer than eternity, to me. And you haven't given me any reason to keep hanging on. So I'm afraid I'm going to end your little experiment. If there are any objections, let's hear them now.
No voices spoke in his head. No flash of light heralded a visitor. He hadn't really expected anything like that, but even still, a tiny shred of hope died in the silence around him.
All right then. Let's get this over with.
When they'd first made the decision, he had been shocked, horrified, disbelieving. Not in the sense that he believed they were lying, or that it wasn't going to happen; he was still part of them at that time. He knew they meant it. But he couldn't understand how they could do such a thing to him. Condemnation to mortality was nothing but a sentence to a slow and agonizing death. What had he done to deserve this? Had he been human already, he would have pleaded with them, begged, demanded to know why. At the time, though, he was still Q, and knew better. He accepted the decision numbly, unquestioning, knowing there was nothing he could do to alter his fate.
They asked him to choose what species of mortal he would be, and where in the physical universe he wanted to be. He had only a fraction of a second to decide, but for a Q that was long enough to consider several options. Briefly he toyed with becoming a non-sentient animal. Without sentience, he wouldn't be able to hold to his memories long; he would become that animal, and forget he had ever been anything better. But he didn't want to forget, and besides, without that animal's instinctive knowledge he'd be dead very shortly. He needed a sentient race that would accept him, that would teach him how to be one of them. It had to be one he had a great deal of personal experience with, because no mortal brain could retain the memories of omniscience; he wouldn't remember what he'd known through the totality of the Q Continuum, only what he had personal knowledge of, and little enough of that. Unfortunately most of the sentient races that he knew personally knew him personally- he wouldn't survive long among them. Humans were one of his current pet projects, and he believed he could talk Picard into protecting and guiding him, despite the unpleasantnesses he'd inflicted on the man. So he'd asked to be human, and to be sent to the bridge of the Enterprise.
By vast coincidence, or perhaps someone's idea of an evil practical joke, he had shown up during the middle of a crisis that the mortals aboard Enterprise had no explanation for. A moon was falling out of orbit, to crash on an inhabited world, and Picard was convinced Q was the cause. It took hours, and a great deal of humiliation, to convince the Enterprise crew that he was as powerless as he claimed, and had nothing to do with the moon's fall.
Around that time, one of the races he'd expected to come after him had shown up. The Calamarain were an energy-based lifeform, very sophisticated as lower creatures went. They had the power to determine what had happened to him and to track him down (or had someone helped them with that? Q had enemies within the Continuum as well). Twice they assaulted him, despite the Enterprise's attempt to protect him. Q had not truly thought out the implications of mortality before. Certainly he'd known that he could now die, but he hadn't really understood it until the Calamarain's ionized tachyon plasma field first started draining his life.
By that time, he had been thrown in a brig, experienced the terror of falling asleep and the pain of hunger, not to mention being tormented by an old enemy aboard the Enterprise itself. He had been humiliated numerous times, forced to perform menial tasks, and realized how much more unpleasant mortals' dislike of him was when he was on their level. The second time the Calamarain attacked, the android Data had saved Q at risk to his own life, and Q had started to feel ashamed. After all, his own people, who knew him completely, had thought him worthy only of mortality and death. He was not happy, nor making anyone else happy, nor serving any purpose with his continued existence at all. He was terrified of everything, and miserable, and lonely, and he couldn't imagine bearing this state of affairs for any length of time.
To make matters worse, the Calamarain were inevitably going to destroy the Enterprise to get to him. The Enterprise would be able to hold up against them if it abandoned Bre'el IV to its fate and fought, and it would be safe from the Calamarain if Picard tossed Q out the airlock, but Picard would do neither. Picard was incapable of making such ruthless choices, Q thought. He would try desperately to save both Q and the planet, and doom both and his ship as well. And Q could no longer allow that to happen.
So he'd stolen a shuttlecraft and gone out to meet the Calamarain, taking the decision out of Picard's hands. He had been utterly terrified, of course. He was miserably unhappy as a human, but even still he didn't really want to face death, and more importantly, he didn't want to face pain. The execution method the Calamarain would use would give neither a quick death nor a painless one. But he couldn't see the sense in seeing people who wanted to live, people who had gone out of their way to protect him, die so he could prolong an existence he hated.
As the shuttle headed outward, a transmission came in from the Enterprise- Picard. "Shuttle occupant, identify yourself."
He turned on the comlink. "Don't try to talk me out of it, Jean-Luc."
"Return to the ship immediately!"
Q almost wanted to laugh. Did Picard think he would do it just because Picard told him to? "I just can't get used to following orders."
Behind Picard, on the viewscreen, he saw Worf, saying, "The plasma cloud is moving toward the shuttlecraft."
Well, of course it was. Didn't they understand what he was doing here? "It's easier this way," he told them. "They won't bother you after I'm gone."
Next to Picard, Riker said, "Engineering, prepare to extend shields," and Q felt a spike of genuine anger, as well as a bit of surprising gratitude. Riker was more ruthless, more adaptable than Picard, and had somewhat more reason to dislike Q- and he couldn't make the necessary choice either? Couldn't any of them see that this was the only way? "Please, don't fall back on your tired cliché of charging to the rescue just in the nick of time," he snapped. If their compassion drove them to such stupidity, perhaps he could bring them to their senses by making them think this was the compassionate thing to do. "I don't want to be rescued. My life as a human being has been a dismal failure. Perhaps my death will have a little dignity."
"Q, there is no dignity in this suicide!" Picard shouted.
Q experienced a sensation he didn't understand- a tightening of the throat, a pain in his chest. Picard didn't understand. After all this, Picard still didn't understand. "Yes, I suppose you're right," he said, bitter self-pity welling up. "Death of a coward then, so be it. But as a human- I would have died of boredom."
He cut the transmission and ignored the Enterprise's attempts to re-establish contact. Despite his experience at observing mortal death, he had never thought about it from this end before- he wondered if the experience would seem very different, now that it was actually happening to him.
Then he felt a faint, inexplicable dizziness, and saw the walls of the shuttle bay around him instead of stars. He had been transported back into the Enterprise.
The controls were frozen. Nothing responded. Furiously, Q stormed out of the shuttlecraft, out of the bay, and ran directly into Picard, Worf, Troi and Riker. Before they could say anything, he laid into them. "How dare you interfere like this?" he demanded. "I told you I didn't want to be rescued. There was only one way my human existence could have had a point, and you just deprived me of that! What gives you the right to dictate my life?"
"You mean, what gives us the right to transport you somewhere against your will, demand that you obey us or punish you with unpleasant consequences, and interfere with your right to do as you wish?" Picard asked.
"Exactly," Q snapped, and then realized the trap he'd just fallen into.
Picard merely looked at him. Q glared at the four of them- everyone except for Picard seemed to be wearing a smug smirk. "This is unfair and hypocritical, Picard. You're the one that kept telling me that the power to do something is no excuse for doing it."
"And so it isn't. Protestations that we are being unfair are a bit hollow, however, coming from you."
"After all, Q, fairness is such a human concept," Riker said. "Think imaginatively."
Q ignored Riker's dig. "You don't understand! You're so marvelously compassionate, Picard. So full of respect for all life, even mine. Weren't you going to say something like that? Well, if you don't make some hard choices and sacrifice someone, you're going to destroy everyone. You can't protect your precious Bre'el IV, your ship, and me at the same time. And it makes far more sense to sacrifice me than a ship or a planet. Even you must be able to see that."
"Much as I dislike agreeing with him, sir, he has a point," Worf said. "We cannot fight off attacks by the Calamarain and save Bre'el IV."
"You see? I knew if I argued that I ought to die, Worf, at least, would be on my side."
"Perhaps you're right," Picard said. "Perhaps it will become necessary to sacrifice you. If so, I'll keep in mind that you've volunteered." He looked as if he couldn't quite believe it. "But we have not yet exhausted all the possibilities. Until then, I cannot simply allow you to destroy yourself-"
"Then you're a fool!"
At that point Picard's badge bleeped. "Bridge to Picard."
"Sir, the Calamarain has vanished. In a bright flash of light."
All eyes turned on Q. "So you have no powers," Picard said softly. "You can't stop the fall of the moon. You are forced to nobly sacrifice yourself for the good of the ship." His voice harshened. "I almost believed you."
"What do you mean, 'almost'? It's true!"
"What did you do with the Calamarain, Q?" Riker demanded.
"I didn't do anything! You think I did that?"
"In our experience, things rarely disappear in a bright flash of light unless you are somehow involved," Picard said.
"I didn't do it! Look, if this was a charade- and I don't know why you insist on believing it is; I assure you if I had my powers I would never humiliate myself so consistently and so long for the sake of a mere game- but if it was, why would I wreck everything by displaying my powers so openly? If I had had my powers, and I wanted the Calamarain to leave, I'd have banished it more subtly than that."
"You aren't known for your subtlety, Q," Riker said.
"I'm not known for keeping up an act this long, either," Q snapped. "You believe I'd go to all this trouble and then make the Calamarain vanish in front of you? Credit me with at least as much intelligence as you yourself have!"
"Captain," Troi began, "I believe he's telling-"
"Now, folks, let's try not to be closed-minded here," a voice behind him said, interrupting Troi.
Q whipped around. The being that stood 3 meters away, next to the bulkhead, was wearing an unfamiliar form, a blond man dressed in the same disgusting gray and green jumpsuit Q himself had been forced to wear. But Q recognized him immediately. "Q!" he cried, hopefully. Did this mean the Continuum had reconsidered? "What are you doing here?"
Picard glanced at them both. "This is- one of your race, Q?"
"Guilty as charged," the other Q said to Picard, and turned back to Q. "I've been keeping track of you."
"I always thought you were in my corner."
The other Q shook his head, laughing. "No, no. Actually, I was the one that got you kicked out."
As Q's eyes widened in shock, Picard said, "Am I to take it that you are responsible for the disappearance of the Calamarain?"
"Of course I was. You really should have guessed it was one of us, Captain- Q may be dumb, but like he pointed out, he's not that dumb."
"And are you also responsible for the fall of the Bre'el satellite?" Picard's voice was ice cold.
"Don't be silly. What do you take me for? Him?" The other Q's voice sharpened as he turned to Q. "You know you're incorrigible, Q, you're a lost cause, I can't go to a single solar system-" He gestured with his hands, appeared to notice he was doing so, and trailed off slightly, distracted by the study of his hands. "-without having to... apologize... for you..." He dropped his hands and glared at Q. "And I'm tired of it!"
"I wasn't the one who managed to misplace the entire Deltivid asteroid belt."
"Hey! This isn't about me. I've got better places to be. But someone had to keep an eye on you, to make sure you didn't cause trouble... even as a member of this, mmm... limited... species."
"Well, if that's how you feel, why did you send the Calamarain away?"
The other Q ignored him and turned to the Enterprise crew. "I've got to admit you guys are pretty impressive, as lower species go. I can see what he sees in you. After all the stuff he did to you, you still went out of your way to keep him safe- even to the point of risking yourselves. That's amazing. There's a lot of more advanced species that wouldn't think of it. You guys are on the right track."
Troi said, "Q implied that he- and by extension, all of you- believed compassion a weakness."
"You have to ignore 90% of everything Q says. We always did."
"Then he was never sent by the Continuum to test us?" Picard asked.
"You haven't answered my question!" Q interrupted. "If you have such a low opinion of me, why did you save me?"
"Well. You were about to get yourself killed to save these humans. Seemed to me like a bit of a selfless act."
"You flatter me. I was merely trying to put a quick end to a miserable existence."
"Yeah, I know. Don't try to mislead me, Q, you couldn't do it before and you sure as hell can't do it now." He vanished and reappeared next to Q, leaning to speak directly in his ear. "You and I both know," he said softly, "that the Calamarain would have destroyed the Enterprise to get to you. And that's really why you did it. Wasn't it?"
Q's mouth quirked into a smile. He began to hope again. "It was a teeny bit selfless, wasn't it."
"There, you see!" The other Q stepped back and threw his hands in the air. "I couldn't go back to the Continuum and tell them you committed a selfless act just before the end! If I did, there'd be questions, there'd be explanations, for centuries!"
Riker said slowly, "You saved his life just so you wouldn't have to explain to your superiors how he died?"
"Hey, if you think human bureaucracy is bad, you should have to sit through a meeting of the Continuum. You were lucky to escape, believe me. Besides, it wouldn't be how he died, it'd be the fact that I let him die after he demonstrated a chance at redemption." He turned back to Q. "I thought about giving you back your powers."
Q's heart lurched. He wouldn't have phrased it that way if there was any hope. "And?" he asked, trying to sound casual.
"And no go. The others aren't convinced you've done enough to deserve it."
Q swallowed, staring straight ahead. "I see."
"No, you don't. See, you're a screw-up, Q. You go out to study some new race and you can't resist the temptation to interfere with them, to lower yourself to their level. We've warned you and warned you and you still keep doing it. And you don't even do it right. Any of us could have told you that making a human a Q wouldn't have taught us diddly-squat about humans." He jerked a thumb at Riker. "By the time he was really Q, he wouldn't have anything in common with humanity anymore- and the species might be extinct by then."
"I don't understand," Riker said. "Was it a genuine offer or was he only playing with me?"
"Well, both," the other Q said. "You'd have been Q, all right- the youngest of our infants. It would have been at least a few thousand years, more like a few hundred thousand, before you'd have become a full Q, on a par with him and the rest of us. And it'd be several million years before you'd be considered mature. This guy here hasn't even gotten that far."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Q said. "If you all objected so strongly, why didn't anyone stop me then?"
"We did, after you'd screwed it up. But that's beside the point. Look. Now you've got me and some of the others interested in humanity. And we've figured a much better way to understand them. Rather than make a human a Q, we'll take the opportunity you gave us, and mak human. After all, you we know. We can monitor you and observe how you change as you become more human, and that'll tell us loads more about the human condition than incepting a human would have. So studying humanity's still your assignment. You've just got a different perspective now."
Q stared at his former comrade. "Q, I don't believe your unmitigated arrogance! The complete gall of you people! You throw me out, condemn me to this- this fragile, feeble existence- and you still expect me to work for you? To help you?"
"Of course," the other Q said simply. "No matter how human you become, you'll always be Q. You'll help us whether you want to or not. Besides, play your cards right and maybe we'll change our minds about reinstating you. It's up to you."
"Then- it's not certain. You still might take me back."
"That's what I just said, isn't it?"
"Are you going to leave him here?" Picard asked.
"I'll tell you what. You didn't ask for this, after all. We'll protect him against anything too major for you humans to handle- for instance, if the Ayathieri came gunning in person, you'd be up a creek. Anything like that, we'll take care of. It's up to you guys whether or not you protect him from lesser threats, the kind you can handle, like our friend the Calamarain. Or for that matter whether you dump him out the airlock. We're not going to lift a finger to protect him from lesser threats- if you guys want to mistreat him, that's your business. We won't interfere. Or let him come back to get revenge, if he does get reinstated. After all, it wouldn't be a good test of the human condition if he had guardian angels hovering around, would it?"
"I suppose not," Picard said. "How can we be certain we can trust you, though?"
"See what I have to deal with because of you?" the other Q demanded of Q. "No one who's met you trusts me."
"I'm awfully sorry. Would you like me to flagellate myself into the bargain?" Q asked with bitter sarcasm.
"Hey, if you want to. I'm sure a whole bunch of us would enjoy watching." The other Q turned back to Picard. "We aren't all like this specimen, believe me. Otherwise we wouldn't have thrown him out."
"It would help if we knew a bit more about the Continuum and its motives in all this. As you've implied, we can hardly trust Q's word."
"Well, you can trust it better now." He glanced over at Q. "You hear me? No more lies about the Continuum. It's making us look bad."
He was about to leave. Q swallowed his pride. "Wait. Before you go?"
"I wouldn't ordinarily ask, but since you're in the neighborhood anyway- and I know it wouldn't be any effort for you- and they've lost a lot of time to this little conversation-"
"You want me to fix the moon for them."
"If you would."
The other Q scowled. "You know we're not supposed to do stuff like that. If we do, then they get dependent on it, and they don't solve their own problems-"
"They've have solved it long ago if we hadn't interfered. You know that."
"You mean if you hadn't interfered."
"Well, you let me! That makes it your problem. You didn't have to send me to the Enterprise in the middle of a crisis, you know. You could have arranged for me to arrive a few days later. But no."
The other Q sighed. "Okay, fine. But don't ask me for anything else. This is positively the last time, you understand?"
"And you asking this isn't winning you any brownie points, you know."
"Do you have to be so incredibly suspicious? Read my mind, Q. Am I asking for brownie points? Is that what your omniscience tells you?"
"That's what me knowing you tells me." The other Q studied Q a moment. "You really are serious. Maybe there's hope for you yet."
"Yeah, well, don't tell the others or my reputation will be shot."
The other Q grinned. "All right then. Try and stay out of trouble?"
He vanished in a characteristic burst of light as Picard's badge bleeped again. "Bridge, sir. We have an incoming transmission from Bre'el IV science station."
"I'll take it in my ready room in two minutes." He looked at Q. "It appears- for the moment- that we're stuck with you."
"I wouldn't phrase it that-"
Abruptly he felt a wave of dizziness. He swayed, and his vision dimmed. Troi caught his elbow. "Q! What's wrong?"
"I'm... not sure." He leaned against the wall, getting his equilibrium back. "I feel..."
"Yes, exactly. Dizzy. And- and hollow, somehow. Does that make any sense?"
"When did you last eat?"
"Counselor, get Q something to eat," Picard said. "You're assigned to him until Data recovers. Number One, Mr. Worf, report to the bridge. I'll be headed for my ready room."
Everyone nodded and headed off their separate ways. Troi frowned slightly. "I thought Data took you to Ten-Forward and got you something to eat."
"He did. I was going to have chocolate sundaes. But the Calamarain attacked, and I lost my appetite. Are you sure I need to eat and I'm not coming down with a disease of some sort? Or falling asleep again? This doesn't feel the same way hunger did before."
"Well, your body could be reacting to the Calamarain attacks. But I think it's more likely an adrenaline reaction, compounded by the fact that you haven't eaten. Your blood sugar's probably low, after all that excitement. If you still feel ill after you've eaten, I'll take you to sickbay."
She started forward. Q followed. "Are we going to Ten-Forward?"
"Can we go when Guinan's not there?"
Troi looked back at him and smiled. "That's right. I forgot you and Guinan have a history."
Q felt a surge of remembered outrage. "She's a dangerous creature! I can't understand why Picard allows her to roam free on his ship. When I went to Ten-Forward before, she stabbed me!"
"You don't look hurt," Troi observed.
"She stabbed me with a fork, in the hand. I was actually bleeding. They fixed it at sickbay, after the Calamarain attacked."
"I see," Troi said, still smiling. "Well, Guinan will leave you alone if I ask her to."
"That's why I couldn't eat. I ordered ten chocolate sundaes and I couldn't eat any of them because she made me so angry I lost my appetite. Then the Calamarain attacked, and I just never had any time."
"Wait a minute. You ordered ten chocolate sundaes?"
"Data said that you said that eating chocolate was good for a depression. And I was utterly miserable."
Troi began to laugh. Q glared at her. "What are you laughing at?"
"Q, you don't eat ten chocolate sundaes!" She controlled herself. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't laugh at you."
"You're certainly right you shouldn't. Why can't I eat ten chocolate sundaes?"
"It would make you sick! One, maybe two- if that was your only meal I could even see three. But not ten, Q. You'd never have been able to finish them all." She shook her head, smiling wryly. "I suppose that's the down side to having Data take care of you. He doesn't know things like that either."
"Well, how many does it take to cure a depression?"
Troi shook her head. "In the first place, while chocolate makes me feel better when I'm sad, it won't necessarily help you. Different people react differently to food. You might not even like chocolate- though I think you will. Most humans do. But in the second place, it's not a magic cure-all. I can sense quite how badly you feel, Q. If I were that unhappy, chocolate might make me feel a little bit better, but it wouldn't make my hurt go away. You can't expect a chocolate sundae to solve all your problems."
"I wasn't expecting it to solve all my problems. I'd settle for temporarily forgetting about them, though."
They arrived at Ten-Forward. Guinan was visible behind the bar, and Q flinched slightly, stepping behind Troi a bit. "Are you sure we can't go at a later time?" he asked nervously.
"You need something to eat now. Don't worry. I promise Guinan will leave you alone." They walked over to the counter furthest from Guinan. Q saw a look pass between the two women, and felt a sudden sense of panic. Maybe they were conspiring against him. Troi was going to set him up to relax and think he was safe and then Guinan would ambush him. He wasn't really afraid of her using her special abilities on him, not really; she had been awfully reluctant to use them against him when he was at full power, and she certainly wouldn't need them now. But he was well aware of how fragile his body was, now. She could hurt him in a million different ways.
"Q, calm down," Troi said. "No one is going to hurt you."
"Then what were you looking at Guinan for? I saw you. You were telling her something, weren't you."
"I'm not a telepath."
"You don't need to be! You were saying something with that look, I know you were."
"I was, as a matter of fact. I was signaling her to leave us alone." Troi shook her head. "You're feeling paranoid, Q. There's no need for it. I promise you, no one in Ten-Forward will hurt you."
"Are you sure? You can't control Guinan, you know. She'll do whatever she wants. She's not reasonable."
"I think you're describing yourself better than Guinan. Whatever history the two of you have, Guinan is my friend. She won't interfere with one of my patients if I ask her not to. Now please. Relax. No one will hurt you."
Despite himself, he found himself believing her. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. This constant fear was wearying and unpleasant- he had to try to be less of a coward, or he'd die of exhaustion. "All right. I'll try to calm down."
"I know it's hard for you." Troi put a hand on his arm, obviously trying to comfort him. The gesture itself meant nothing to him, but oddly enough, he was slightly comforted by the fact that she'd thought to make the gesture. "You're not used to being vulnerable to anything, and you're not sure what can threaten you now, so you're jumping at shadows. But you do have to calm down, or you'll make yourself sick."
"What should I get to eat, then? Since you're the expert."
The waitress approached. Troi leaned forward. "We'll have baked minea fish, lightly braised in butter; a dish of mixed vegetables cooked in bouillon broth; mashed potatoes, lightly buttered and well-whipped; a glass of water; a glass of chocolate milk, no lactose; and two chocolate sundaes, to be brought with the rest of it. The temperature of the hot food should be mild."
The waitress nodded and left. "So you think two chocolate sundaes is all right, then?" Q asked.
"You're only getting one. The other one's for me."
"Why can't I have two chocolate sundaes? I need it more than you."
Troi sighed. "Q, have you ever heard of the Earth saying 'Your eyes are bigger than your stomach'?"
"It doesn't ring a bell. I don't know everything anymore, you know."
"I didn't expect you to. My father always used to say that to me. It's a human expression for when a child doesn't understand the limits of his own capacity for food, and asks for a lot more than he can eat. You have the same problem. You have no idea what your capacity is. And right now, I think it would be better for you to not get enough to eat, and feel a little hungry, than to eat too much and get sick."
"The prospect doesn't sound awfully appealing, I admit." Q propped up his head on his hand. "It seems like there are dozens of things that can make me sick."
"There are. You'll have to be careful in testing your limits, the first few days. That's why I ordered what I did for you."
"The food I ordered is very mild. Some would think it bland to the point of tastelessness. But I'd rather you ate something nutritious and boring than that you ate something that you hated violently, or that you were allergic to."
"Allergic? I might be allergic to food? No one told me this."
"We don't know. You'll have to go carefully the first few days, as I said."
Q shook his head in disbelief. "It's just one thing after another."
The food arrived. It smelled quite pleasant, which was a plus- Q didn't think he could stomach food that smelled bad. The whole notion of putting dead organic matter in his mouth was slightly disgusting anyway. As he smelled the food, he abruptly felt the return of the sensation he'd first identified as hunger- gnawing emptiness and odd noises in his abdominal region. He picked up one of the utensils awkwardly. It was a fork. "What should I start with?"
"Begin with the hot food," Troi advised. "It'll get cold faster than the ice cream will melt."
"How am I supposed to use this?"
Troi took the fork from his hand and demonstrated. "Spoons are much the same, but you scoop with them instead of spearing. The fork is for the hot food, and you use the spoon for the ice cream."
"Fine." He speared a piece of fish, somewhat awkwardly, and ate it. It was quite pleasant, actually. He had imitated the act of eating before, to experience taste, but he had never before felt this sense of intense satisfaction at consuming food. His body instinctively knew what it needed, and rewarded him for supplying it. "This isn't as bad as I thought."
"I'm glad to hear it," Troi said, digging into her ice cream sundae.
Q tried bites of all the items on his plate. He found the mashed potatoes soothing, the vegetables somewhat bland and mushy, and the ice cream sundae delicious. Quickly he ignored the rest of his food and began to devour the sundae, smiling. "You were right. This is quite good."
"Don't eat so fast. You'll get a headache."
That seemed like a ludicrous notion to Q. There was no way that he could see that eating quickly could possibly result in a headache. This sounded like an old wives' tale, on the order of parents telling their children not to stick their hands out the windows of aircars or the hands would be ripped off. Q knew for a fact that no child had ever had his hand ripped off simply by sticking it out the aircar window, and he doubted anyone ever got a headache from eating too fast. He was probably violating some ridiculous cultural taboo, not that he cared. Ignoring Troi, he continued to wolf down the ice cream.
To his great surprise, an agonizing pain stabbed through his head. Q gasped and dropped his spoon. Troi looked concerned. "What's wrong?"
"My head," he said. He looked at Troi disbelievingly. "You were right. That's ridiculous. How can eating quickly give you a headache?"
"I don't know what the physics of it is," Troi said. "But when I give you a suggestion, perhaps next time you might consider following it, instead of deciding you know best."
Q tried to take another bite of the ice cream. The pain came back. "How do I finish this without hurting myself?" he asked miserably.
"Take a break. Eat the rest of your meal. It'll warm you up."
Q took a few half-hearted bites of his food. It was less tasty now. What he really wanted was the sundae. He studied it morosely. "Well, this was a useless remedy. I'm still depressed."
Troi sighed. "I told you it's not a panacea. Besides, you enjoyed it, didn't you?"
"Well, yes. Until my head exploded."
"Then it showed you that there are some benefits to being mortal after all. So you couldn't call it a total loss, could you?"
Reluctantly Q nodded. "I suppose so."
Troi's badge bleeped. She touched it. "Troi here."
"This is Picard. Counselor, are you still with Q?"
"When he's done with his meal, I'd like to see him in my ready room."
Q started to stand up. Troi motioned him back down again. "Acknowledged, Captain." She turned to Q. "He said you could finish dinner first."
"I want to get it over with."
"Finish your food. The captain hardly wants you to starve."
The food was significantly cooler, and had even less taste now. If he hadn't still been so hungry, he wouldn't be able to force it down. "Let me ask you a question, Counselor."
"Go right ahead."
"Why are you being nice to me?" She blinked at him. He continued. "I could understand Data- he doesn't dislike me, since he can't feel any emotion. You, however, I have to presume probably dislike me as much as anyone else aboard this ship. Why are you going out of your way to explain things to me, and comfort me, and all that sort of thing?"
She shrugged. "It's my job. If I couldn't put aside my personal feelings for someone to help them, I wouldn't be a very good counselor."
"One could wish Picard and Riker saw things that way."
"Captain Picard and Commander Riker aren't ship's counselors. It's my job to ensure the morale of everyone aboard this ship, including you."
"Do you feel any qualms? Desire for revenge, outraged justice, the like?"
"No. You have to understand, Betazoid 'justice' is very different from human. We don't believe in punishing people in order to try to redress some cosmic balance; two hurts don't cancel each other out. On Betazed, we prevent criminals from committing crimes again, but we also do our best to make them see why what they did was wrong and how to correct themselves in the future. Since you've been stripped of your powers, you can't commit crimes against us again. So now our task is to rehabilitate you."
Q laughed. "That's ridiculous."
"Do you expect that anything you could do to me in a human lifetime could balance out millions of years?"
"Yes. I do." Troi leaned forward. "Q, we don't grow unless we're challenged. Faced with adversity. You haven't had any reason to change in all those millions of years, since you were never faced with adversity. Now, you have a much greater opportunity for learning experiences. You're likely to change more in the next five years than you did in centuries of omnipotence. And I think that's very valuable. I think this experience will be good for you."
"Hardly, if I die of it."
"I suppose that's true. But that gives you a risk- something to work toward and something to lose if you fail. If your Continuum does take you back, you will probably be a very different person. That's what I'm looking at when I'm dealing with you- not the spoiled, petulant godling who tormented us, but the potential to grow into a decent human being."
"I have a hard time appreciating your point of view." He pushed aside his plate, empty. "And I don't think I'll ever be able to cut it as a human being."
"Perhaps you're underestimating yourself." She smiled. "For once."
"I doubt it."
"It's not that hard to be mortal."
"Maybe not for you. I have several million years of habits to unlearn."
"If you stay aboard the Enterprise, I'll help you with it. You might be surprised at what you can adapt to."
"If I ever adapt to this, I will be very surprised." Q stood up. "I'd better go see what Picard wants."
"I'll go with you." Troi got up.
"That isn't necessary. I know the way from here."
"I know you do, but he left me in charge of you. I think the captain would prefer you didn't go anywhere without an escort."
Q smiled thinly. "What, is he afraid I'll steal another shuttlecraft?"
"It's standard procedure for guests to the Enterprise to have escorts."
"Whatever." He sighed as he walked out of Ten-Forward. "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."
Troi, thankfully, stayed outside Picard's ready room as Q entered, feeling slightly as if he were walking into the jaws of a large and hungry beast. "You asked to see me, mon capitaine?"
"Sit down," Picard said, motioning at a chair. Q did so, somewhat nervously. Picard studied him for several moments, generating an uncomfortable silence. Finally, when Q was about to say something, anything, to break the silence, Picard said, "It appears I may have misjudged you."
"Probably," Q said. "But I won't hold it against you, Jean-Luc."
Picard looked exasperated momentarily, but controlled it well. "Before today- before an hour or so ago- I would have said that you were entirely selfish, incapable of inconveniencing yourself for another's sake, let alone capable of self-sacrifice. I still find it somewhat hard to believe that you were willing to die for us. Perhaps there's a little more- humanity- in you than I would have thought."
"There's no need to be insulting."
"It was not intended to be insulting. As you well know."
Q looked away. "Yes. I know."
"Did you believe the others would intercede for you? That they would take you back if you committed a selfless act?"
"If I had, it would hardly have been selfless, would it?" Q turned on Picard. "You know, I resent your implications here. You don't know me. You know nothing about me. Except for the past twenty hours or so, all you've seen of me is what I chose to show you, and on that basis you make judgments about what I'm capable of? You don't know what I'm capable of. I do understand the concept of guilt, you know. And the concept of the good of the many outweighing the good of the few. Those things are hardly unknown to the Q."
"I have wondered if you possess a moral sense at all. When you first came here, you leveled accusations against us that almost precisely corresponded to what you yourself were doing. You claimed that we were a savage race who made prejudgments on the basis of little or no understanding, demonstrating that you yourself did exactly that. Now I am left with the impression that you were never sent with the authority of your Continuum at all. That they in fact disapproved of your behavior and have disapproved for some time."
"I can see where you'd get that impression."
"Everything you have told us about them is a lie, isn't it?"
"Hardly everything. It's true they kicked me out. You can see that for yourself."
"When you last came here, you told us that you had been exiled from the Q Continuum, but you were still in obvious possession of your powers. Was that a lie as well? And if not, what further thing did you do to justify being punished more?"
Q sighed, realizing that he wasn't able to dissemble on this topic anymore. "Not a lie... exactly. But it... wasn't exactly the first time they'd done it, either."
"You'd been exiled before?"
"It's a temporary sort of thing. No one takes it very seriously- it's generally only for a few hundred years or so. It's happened... a few times. The last time, they were mostly annoyed with me because I..." He realized he was saying too much, and that he really didn't want to explain the next part.
"Because you what?"
He also didn't seem to have a choice. "Because I, uh... didn't exactly have the, uh, authority to give Riker the powers," Q mumbled.
"And was that part of the reason for your further punishment?"
"No, that... they've apparently been debating that behind my back for the past thousand years or so. It just happened they reached a decision now."
"I see." Picard steepled his hands in front of his face. "Now. Why, exactly, did they throw you out?"
"You heard him. And I told you already, anyway."
"I want to hear it again."
Q sighed. "They think I use my powers irresponsibly. I take privileges I have no right to. I consistently bend the spirit of the law in following the letter. I disobey my elders. I torment lower races and make the rest of the Continuum look bad. Do I have to go on?"
"No," Picard said, nodding. "I would say that I agree with their assessment."
"Well, I'm sure they're all thrilled to hear it."
"Do you believe the punishment was justified?"
The worst of the depression, held somewhat in abeyance most of this time, crashed in on Q. He folded his hands in his lap and stared down at them, silent for a minute. He hadn't needed to hear that question, hadn't needed to be reminded. In a small, almost inaudible voice he whispered, "...yes."
Picard looked surprised. "You do?"
Q looked up, taking refuge in anger. "The Q Continuum is perfect, incapable of making a mistake. Individual Q, yes, obviously. But if I were to believe for a moment that the Continuum, acting as a whole, could make an incorrect judgment, it would invalidate everything I've known for millions of years. Frankly, I'd far prefer to believe that I'm an evil bastard who deserved what he got. See, I don't think you understand, Picard. Your human analogies only work up to a point. I was part of the same body that judged me! Part of me... was part of the decision to condemn me." He sagged again, the anger fading. "I told you I understand the concept of guilt."
"You... condemned yourself?" Picard sounded somewhat shocked.
"It's... complicated, and I doubt I could explain in human terms. But... I was part of the Q Continuum. That doesn't mean the same thing as being part of the human race. To a certain extent... we are all the same entity."
"Like the Borg?"
"Not like the Borg, nothing like the Borg. We value our individuality very highly. But... I just can't explain it in human terms, all right? We're all individuals and we're all part of a collective mind. You'll just have to accept that."
"But... to the extent to which I am- was- part of the collective... it wasn't a decision made by vote, the way you would understand it, any more than the separate parts of your mind vote on your decisions. There were pros and cons weighed, but in the end, it was unanimous. It had to be, or they wouldn't have acted on it. And at the time that the Continuum unanimously decided to throw me out, I was still part of it. So- in a certain limited sense, yes. I condemned myself."
Picard sighed. "I'm not sure I understand, but I'll leave it at that. I really hadn't intended for this to turn into an interrogation."
"What an astonishing coincidence that it turned out that way, then." Q frowned at Picard. "Tell me, Jean-Luc, has there been a point to all these questions aside from your desire to needlessly humiliate me?"
"Yes. There has." Picard leaned back. "I doubt I will ever be able to forgive you for the deaths of my crewmen, the last time you were here. And I think it would take a great deal of time for me to be able to forget how you treated us, the first and second times we encountered you. But I have revised my opinion of you somewhat. I now believe that there is some hope for you- that you might, perhaps, develop into a better person. Perhaps someday, unlikely as it seems now, even a person worth knowing."
"Really." This was surprising, and pleasant- after the direction the conversation had taken, Q was expecting another long speech about how horrible he was. He controlled the impulse to smile. "Does this mean you'll let me stay on your starship?"
"I've been considering that very question."
Q stared at Picard. I'm going to take the word 'and' out of my vocabulary, he vowed. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
"I mean no. I don't believe it would be beneficial for anyone for you to stay aboard the Enterprise."
"Why not?" The fear came back again- fear that he would be cast out, abandoned to die or simply abandoned, left with people he had even less affinity with than the Enterprise crew. "I could be helpful. I told you last time, you're not prepared for the dangers out there. I may not be omniscient anymore, but I still have a vast amount of knowledge I could share with you- and with my powers gone, you don't need to mistrust me quite so much. Picard, you're turning down the opportunity of a lifetime."
"I am also turning down the headache of a lifetime. Q, I am not disputing that you could be very useful. But frankly, you're not worth the trouble. If it were simply that you are a danger to this ship, I might decide differently. We are reasonably well able to defend ourselves, and there is precedent- Starfleet ships have offered people with dangerous enemies sanctuary in exchange for information or services before. In fact, I can say with some certainty that if some other entity, with whom we had had no experience, turned up in the same situation as you, requesting the same protection as you, and offering the same information as you, I might have accepted. The trouble is that I know you."
"You're abandoning me just because you don't like me? I thought better of you, Picard."
"In the first place, I'm hardly abandoning you. I will arrange a sanctuary for you- elsewhere. In the second place, if it were simply that I personally disliked you, I would never let it interfere with my decision. And in the third place, whether you believe it or not, I have your best interests in mind as well as the welfare of my ship."
"Oh, my best interests in mind? Let's hear your explanation for that, Picard. This one ought to be good."
Picard leaned forward and spoke calmly, evenly. "You are obnoxious. Insubordinate. Unused to discipline. You possess no workable interpersonal skills. These things alone would make a starship a bad place for you. The morale of my people depends on their ability to trust and get along with one another, and you are neither trustworthy nor socially adequate."
As Q opened his mouth to interrupt, Picard held up a hand, overriding him. "Before you complain that you are trustworthy or some such, hear me out. If you cast in your lot with us, I have no doubt that you would want to be trustworthy- that you would not betray us for casual amusement, as you would have in the past. You are simply not dependable. As I've said before, you are insubordinate, undisciplined and very much accustomed to getting your own way. There are times aboard a starship when everyone's life depends on one person's ability to obey orders quickly and without question. Perhaps you could learn to take orders from me. But what about others? Today you interfered with our work on the Bre'el satellite because you refused to take commands from Mr. LaForge. Your abilities are of no use to us if you cannot use them under someone else's direction. You might be required to work under the direction of Data, or Worf- for that matter, it is not inconceivable that in some situation you would be working under Wesley Crusher. Could you under any circumstances take orders from a sixteen-year-old boy?"
Q looked down. "You... have a point," he admitted reluctantly.
"Even this would not be an insurmountable difficulty, if you were on another starship, or we had no history with you. Neither of these is the case, however. Before, I told you that you would have to work hard to earn our trust. I've reconsidered in the light of the past several hours, and I no longer think that working hard would do it. Q, you don't have the skills to win our trust. We knew you when, and that will always interfere. It would be an intolerable strain on ship morale if I were to ask my people to protect an individual who has harmed them in the past, who does nothing to make them like him, and whose presence puts the ship into grave danger."
"I thought you humans were supposed to be so compassionate."
"Compassionate, yes. But compassion doesn't operate in a vacuum. Humans learn the rules of social interaction with one another, rules to... encourage others to be compassionate with them. The only social interaction you've mastered is how to be obnoxious. I don't think you even need to try. In fact, even when you try not to be, you're obnoxious. For instance, earlier, when you came into my ready room to talk to me after you were last attacked by the Calamarain, you sat down on my desk. You must be aware of the fact that I find such behavior intensely irritating."
"I didn't- I wasn't trying to be irritating. I didn't think-"
"You didn't think. Precisely. I know you weren't trying to be irritating, Q. In your own fashion, you were trying to apologize, I'm sure. But you see my point. At your most sincere, you still manage to annoy people." Picard sighed. "When Data first came aboard the Enterprise, he hadn't much more practical knowledge of human social interaction than you do. In many respects, he had much less. In some respects, he still has much less. But Data had no bad habits to unlearn. You are going to have to be with people who'll be very patient with you while you unlearn your bad habits and learn good ones- and I don't think the Enterprise crew is capable of being that patient with you. You need to go somewhere new, start over with people who didn't know you as an omnipotent bully. People who didn't lose 18 friends and shipmates to an encounter you provoked."
"I'm getting very tired of you throwing that up in my face, Picard," Q snapped. "I didn't kill those 18 people. The Borg did."
"We would never have encountered the Borg if you hadn't sent us into their territory!"
"Au contraire, mon capitaine. You're going to encounter the Borg in less than a year, and I won't have had a thing to do with it. If you'd let me join your crew, I would have warned you- they're heading for Federation space, they've been headed this way for some time, and I'd estimate their arrival at sometime this year or next."
Picard stared. "That's not what you implied last time."
Q shrugged. "I've been known to be vague about the facts."
"And I'm expected to believe you this time?"
"This time I've got as much at stake as you do. Believe me, I have no desire to be assimilated by the Borg." Q leaned forward. "I could help you against them, Picard. We have some time to prepare. I don't know very much about your technology, it's true, but I understand physics far better than any of your people possibly could. I've also made a minor hobby of studying the Borg- I know far better than you what they can do. I could work with you on improving your technology, exploiting weaknesses in the Borg- There's no way you can beat them without my help, you know that."
"I appreciate the offer, and I'm sure Starfleet will wish to take you up on it. The Enterprise is not the place for that, however. You would need to be somewhere stationary, somewhere that Federation scientists can get access to easily."
Or in other words, no matter what Q said, Picard would find an excuse to abandon him. Q sighed, defeated. "What did you have in mind?"
"If you were to offer your knowledge to the Federation as a whole, I'm sure Starfleet would be happy to give you protection. They could set you up on a starbase or a station, something with a fairly advanced defensive capacity. Federation scientists would come to you for theoretical knowledge, or historical data, or anything you have the ability to tell them about. In exchange Starfleet could protect you, provide you room and board and whatever else you need."
"You've wanted to shuffle me off to a starbase since this began."
"Q, a starbase would be a far better place for you than here. For one thing, if you were providing the Federation with your knowledge, you would become very valuable. You would be given sufficient status to compensate for your-"
"Personality problems, I would say. But yes. And as I said before, they wouldn't know you. They'd have no previously established reason to dislike you. You might even make friends." Picard sounded as if he didn't entirely believe the last part of what he was saying himself.
"What do you mean, they wouldn't know me? How am I supposed to explain my knowledge- and my need for protection- without telling them who I am?"
"Oh, they'll know who you are. I'm sure they'll be briefed thoroughly. But humans usually prefer to decide their own opinions on the basis of personal knowledge, rather than relying on someone else's experience. They will know of you, but they won't know you, and that might make all the difference."
There was apparently no way to get out of this. "If you insist, Picard." Q still felt as if he were being abandoned, but he wasn't about to admit it- he had already shown far too much weakness for his tastes. "Make whatever arrangements you wish, I'll comply with them. I don't appear to have much of a choice."
"No. You don't." Picard stood up. "I'll have Counselor Troi take you to spare quarters in one of the civilian areas and set you up there. We probably won't be able to drop you off for a week or so, so you'll need a place to stay. You can wash, rest, get changed, that sort of thing."
"Anything's an improvement on the brig. I'm not picky."
Picard smiled. "I rather doubt that."
His quarters were boring, impersonal, identical to every other spare bedroom on the ship and close to identical to every occupied quarters. Troi brought him there, giving him a civilian combadge. "Ordinarily, civilian combadges are only used in emergencies, and for their locator function. You're a special case, however. You shouldn't use them to hold a conversation, but if you need something, touch the badge, give your name and the person or place you're trying to reach."
"I'm not stupid, Counselor. I've figured that much out from watching the rest of you."
Troi shrugged. "I don't know how much you know- and since there's so much you don't know, perhaps it would be better to give you too much information rather than too little. You can use the computer to read, listen to music, look up information, and many other things. It's voice-activated, so just tell it what you want. The clothing replicator is over here-" she gestured. "Simply step inside and it'll take your measurements. After that, any clothes you want replicated, call up on the menu."
"What about Starfleet uniforms?"
"You're not Starfleet, so those aren't on your menu. Once you're on the starbase, you'll have access to clothing shops, and you can get anything you want- except Starfleet uniforms." She smiled. "I'm sorry, but we worked to wear those outfits. As for here, I'm afraid you're limited to what's on the menu, but there's a wide variety. Clothing for women only is marked with an 'f'- you'll look rather silly if you call one of those up."
"I figured that one out too. And if you worked so hard to wear a Starfleet uniform, why aren't you?"
"This is more comfortable- and I think it makes me look a little bit more relaxed, more like someone to talk to than a member of a military structure. I think it's important for a counselor to seem personally open, and I think wearing a Starfleet uniform would detract from that a bit." She touched a pad, and another door opened. "In here is the bathroom. Let me show you how to use the fixtures."
As she explained the plumbing and the reasons for it, Q felt a surge of nausea. He'd forgotten entirely about this aspect of human existence. "How unbelievably vile," he muttered, thoroughly disgusted. He was grateful to Troi for realizing that he'd need to know these things- he wouldn't have thought to ask until it became necessary, and if it had become necessary he would have died of embarrassment- but it was information he heartily wished he could have done without. He also wondered how soon it would become necessary, whether he would know it when it was time, and if he had time to kill himself first.
"It's just a fact of human existence, Q. There's nothing inherently disgusting about it."
"Can we please discuss something else?"
"All right." She showed him the shower controls and the amenities- toothbrush, beard repressor, skin cleanser, hair cleanser, that sort of thing. "They're all plainly labeled- if you read the bottles first, you can't get mixed up."
"What if I did get mixed up?"
"Depending on what you did, anything might happen from accidentally shaving your head to poisoning yourself. So be careful and read the bottles first."
"Right. Sure. Got it." Anything to get off this topic. He had to know these things, but the longer they talked about it, the more he felt sick with humiliation and disgust. At least it was Troi doing the explanations. Data probably wouldn't know what many of these things were and Q really would die of embarrassment if he had to talk to any of the others about this sort of thing. "Anything else I need to know?"
"Not really. Call for an escort if you want to go somewhere- you're not a prisoner in here, but it's not very safe for you out in the halls without an escort. And if you need anything, feel free to call. I'm going off duty now, but I'll still be up for a few hours."
"Right. Thanks. See you later."
After she had gone, Q had the replicator make him an entire new wardrobe, in halfway decent colors. None of the available clothes on the menu were terribly interesting- what was this fetish for one-piece jumpsuits? He hated one-piece jumpsuits. They were uncomfortable and awfully unflattering. When he excluded one-piece jumpsuits from the menu, there wasn't much left for his wardrobe- on the other hand, if he was only going to be here a few days he wouldn't have time to do much dressing up. It was probably time to wash- he had gotten the impression from Troi that humans showered or bathed every day, and he had no desire to be dirty.
He stripped off the gray jumpsuit and tossed it in a chute that he hoped led to the incinerator, went into the bathroom and attempted to figure out the shower. Troi had shown him how the controls worked, but that didn't stop him from first drenching himself in freezing water and then scalding himself before he figured out how to modulate the temperature properly. He then discovered that getting either hair cleanser or beard repressor in one's eyes was agonizingly painful, something Troi had neglected to warn him about. Terrified that he had just blinded himself, Q staggered out of the shower, slammed his knee on the toilet, slipped on the way out and fell on his face on the carpet in the bedroom, and fumbled around desperately for his combadge, with burning eyes tightly closed. When his fingers finally closed on the device, he called sickbay, panicked, and was told that he could solve the problem himself by running clean water over his eyes. Still blind, he stumbled back into the bathroom, slipped on wet tiles and cracked his head against the sink, and finally managed to crawl back into the shower, where he discovered that the remedy was almost as painful as the problem itself. After he eventually managed to get his eyes open again, he discovered that they were a bright and nasty red. And they still hurt besides.
Overall, it was not the most successful of his experiments.
As he dried himself, trying to be careful of the bruises he'd just collected, he discovered a new symptom- an uncomfortable pressure in his lower abdomen. It didn't feel anything at all like hunger. He thought of calling sickbay, and then remembered Crusher's tone of long-suffering patience about to wear out. Maybe he didn't want to call sickbay after all. He had the computer here- perhaps he could figure it out for himself.
He asked the computer to display a schematic of human male anatomy, with the various systems and their functions labeled and described. He then compared the location of the uncomfortable pressure to the schematic, figured out what part of his body was generating the sensation, and felt sick again. Now he was awfully glad he hadn't called sickbay.
Trying very hard not to think about what he was doing and how utterly repulsive it was, he attempted to use the facilities in the bathroom. This was even less successful than the showering experiment- he somehow managed to splash urine on himself. That was the last straw. His stomach heaved, his throat burned, and he found himself vomiting up the food he'd eaten before. The sight and smell of the partially digested food sickened him further. He retched again, and again, until there was nothing coming up anymore.
Sick and weak, overwhelmed by the horror of his new existence, with his gut twisted and burning, he curled up in a fetal ball on the floor of the bathroom and whimpered for several minutes. Eventually he realized that he couldn't simply lie here- someone had to clean this mess up, and he was too utterly humiliated to ask anyone else to do it, though he supposed there were probably janitor robots or cleaning people or somesuch. He turned the shower back on, crawled into it to rinse himself off, and then stepped back out, gingerly avoiding the puddles on the floor. The toilet had already cleaned and rinsed itself. He took the towels, put them into the shower, and then threw them sopping wet on the floor, covering up the puddles of vomit. Carefully he scrunched them together, trying to make sure he got all the material and didn't have to touch or look at any of it, rolled up the towels with the filth inside, and threw them down the chute as well. There were puddles of water all over the floor now, but he could live with that.
Now, of course, he had no towels. He limped back out into the bedroom and requested towels from the replicator. Half of them he threw on the bathroom floor again, to soak up the water; he dried himself with another pair and then threw those onto the floor as well. He dumped the dripping towels down the chute and got more clean dry ones from the replicator, which he hung up in the bathroom. He then left the bathroom and pressed the button to shut its door, closing the place and the horrors it had generated away and wishing its door could be slammed. It would feel very satisfying to slam a door around now.
Back in the main room of his quarters, Q got dressed and threw himself on the bed. He felt weak and shaky, and he spent several minutes staring at the ceiling and trying to blank his horrible experience out of his mind. After a few minutes, he managed to regain a bit of his equilibrium, and his mouth twitched into a half-smile. At least it couldn't possibly get any worse than that. He had just experienced the depths of human existence; nothing could frighten him anymore. That was a positive thing in some lights, he supposed.
Though his stomach still hurt from throwing up, he became aware of a different, more familiar pain in it. He was apparently hungry again- which made sense, since he had just lost any value he'd have gotten from his meal earlier. Resolutely he got up and called up a map of the Enterprise on the computer, tracing a route to Ten-Forward. After what he'd just been through, dealing with Guinan would be child's play. On his way out the door, he remembered that Troi had suggested that he go nowhere without an escort- that it "wasn't safe". He snorted. Is she afraid I'll make my way to the transporter room and accidentally beam myself into space, or what? He didn't need an escort- as long as he kept the route memorized he'd be fine.
On the way, he tried to decide what he'd get to eat. The thought of eating anything from the meal he'd had before nauseated him- even the chocolate sundae, which was a damned shame. He'd really liked the chocolate sundae, at least until his head started to hurt. By throwing up his meal, though, he seemed to have convinced his body that the food he'd eaten before was inherently nauseating. He hoped this was a temporary effect- he'd hate to think he'd never get to eat a chocolate sundae again.
None of this answered the question of what to eat. He had no idea what was available outside the foods Counselor Troi had ordered for him. When he got there, he looked around, trying to determine what other people were eating. Ten-Forward was fairly full at this hour, but most people were nursing drinks. Finally Q located a crewman in a gold uniform eating something that didn't look nauseating. He approached the man and asked, "Excuse me, what are you eating?"
The man looked up at him. "A ham sandwich."
"Okay. If I wanted to get one of those, what would I say? Just ask for a ham sandwich?"
"A ham sandwich with lettuce and tomato." The crewman's eyes narrowed. "Aren't you Q?"
"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock. However did you figure that one out?"
The crewman- from his pips he was an ensign- said, "Because the only other person who'd be that clueless about how to do something would be Commander Data, and he doesn't eat. I heard he and LaForge nearly got killed trying to protect you."
"Data got hurt. Nothing happened to LaForge."
"Uh-huh." The ensign took a bite of his sandwich. "What I'd like to know is why they bothered. After what you put us through, you deserved to get fried."
Q scowled. It angered him that a person he didn't even know would so casually pass judgment on him. "Thank you. It's good to know I have friends I can count on here," he said sarcastically. "What's your name, ensign?"
"Nichols," the man said through a mouthful of food.
"Well, Ensign Nichols, when I get my powers back I'll be sure and remember you, and your kind words."
"You won't get them back," Nichols said. "You're too much of an asshole."
"If it makes you feel secure to believe that, go right ahead," Q told him. "You humans are so good at self-delusion. Far be it for me to stand in your way."
He turned aside, smiling. Hopefully that would give the wretch something to lose sleep over.
There was no sign of Guinan, which was encouraging. Right now he wasn't particularly afraid of Guinan, but there was no sense borrowing trouble. Q walked up to the counter and asked the waitress for a ham sandwich with lettuce and tomato.
What she gave him bore no resemblance to what Ensign Nichols had been eating. Q stared at the bowl- noodles and bits of meat in an orange-colored sauce. "This isn't what I ordered."
"It's a house specialty," the waitress said. "Compliments of the hostess."
Which meant Guinan. Q stared at it. "Now I have to worry about it being poisoned," he complained. "Or repulsive in some fashion."
"It isn't poisoned and it isn't repulsive," the waitress said tightly. "You want me to take a few bites and show you?"
"Be my guest." He pushed the plate back at her.
The waitress took another fork from under the counter and scooped up some of the noodles, which she ate with apparent gusto. Of course, Guinan could have trained her to do that. Cautiously Q sniffed the food- it smelled perfectly good. He took a tentative forkful. Tasted good, too- but this was Guinan. There had to be something wrong with it. "I don't want this."
"Then you're not getting anything," the waitress snapped. "Take it or leave it."
He was very hungry. Q took another tentative bite. Nothing seemed to be wrong with it. "If this turns out to be a plot to humiliate me, I'm going to complain to Captain Picard," he announced, and pulled the plate back.
The waitress snorted and left. Q ignored her, concentrating on the food, trying to figure out what the catch was. Maybe it was infected with some annoying human disease, like the common cold- nothing dangerous, but humiliating and unpleasant. He was uncomfortably aware that this was Guinan's territory, her arena, and if he wanted to eat he was going to have to face whatever she had planned for him. Suddenly it no longer seemed like such a good idea to have come to Ten-Forward- there had to be somewhere else on the ship he could get a meal. Did the towel and uniform replicator make food too? Probably it did, he realized. He hadn't needed to come here at all. He could leave and get a meal in his quarters.
A shadow fell on him from behind. He turned, and tensed. Too late to leave now. "I knew you'd show up sooner or later."
"How do you like the meal?" Guinan asked coolly.
"It's quite good, actually. What's the catch?" He narrowed his eyes, studying her. "A disease? A slow-acting drug? Some ingredient humans are allergic to?"
"Nothing like that. I'm not you. Don't you recognize it?"
"Can't say I do. Am I supposed to?"
"It's from my homeworld," she said softly. Then she said something else, in another language, and Q cursed inwardly. He knew perfectly well what the language was. He could remember a time when he spoke it fluently, with Guinan herself, under the name she had had then and in the body and name he had worn at that time. But he couldn't remember it, and he had no idea what she had just said. His lack of comprehension must have shown on his face. "You don't remember that either?"
There was no way to dissemble. "Apparently not," Q said, hating to make the admission. Of all people to show weakness to!
"Guess you're getting senile in your old age," Guinan said.
"Obviously it wasn't a priority with me, or I would have remembered," Q replied, matching her coolness.
"Obviously." Guinan leaned over him. "I said, it's a meal from a dead world, now."
"If you're trying to make me feel guilty, you're being resoundingly unsuccessful. I did far more for you than your miserable world deserved."
Her voice turned ice-cold. "You gave me a completely useless warning."
"Hardly completely useless. You were off-planet when the Borg came, weren't you?"
"Trying to find out the nature of the disaster that was coming."
"Even still. If I hadn't told you what I did, you wouldn't have realized there was a disaster coming at all. You would have been on your homeworld, and you'd have died with the rest of them. I saved your pathetic life."
"Which makes us even." Her eyes narrowed. "Or did you forget that too?"
"That? No. I'm hardly likely to forget that."
"Didn't think you would," she said. "I terrified you. You had no idea you could be threatened."
Q shrugged. "Disturbed me. That, I'll admit."
"You were disturbed before you saw what I can do. You were terrified after."
Q did not like the turn this conversation had taken. He had wanted very much to forget that Guinan existed, after his first encounter with her. He had also wanted very much to get revenge- he could not forgive what she had done to him, and yet he hadn't dared to take any direct action. Guinan's powers were limited in comparison to his, and not nearly so versatile, but her people had abilities even the Q didn't share- abilities that made her capable of destroying, or at least neutralizing, him. He had been forced to agree not to interfere with her people, pressured by both the Continuum and Guinan herself; there was no direct way he could move against her.
A few years later he'd seen the perfect opportunity. He had warned her, in as vague terms as he possibly could, of an upcoming disaster that would destroy her people, and offered to save them if she would meet his price. Of course she wouldn't, as he'd known she wouldn't. Her own abilities could confirm the little that he'd told her- she could see that most of her people would die, but not why, or how. So she'd gone off-world, desperately searching for a way to avert the disaster, and while she was gone the Borg had come and destroyed her home. From a safe distance he'd watched the agony of her guilt, and been gleefully satisfied- she would always be tormented by the fact that she'd refused his offer. And there was no way that what he'd done- give a warning, offer to help- could possibly be construed as against the terms of the treaty the Continuum had made with her people. He had had the perfect revenge, and his own hands were spotless.
He had never expected to be in a position where she could pay him back.
Q stood up and pushed his chair away, facing Guinan. "Is there some point to this?"
"I knew this was going to happen to you, you know," she said. "I've known it for some time."
He stared at her. "What do you mean?"
"I saw this when I first met you. I didn't know what to make of it then. Then last year, when you came to the Enterprise, I realized you were going to become mortal."
Once, he had known exactly how she could have "seen" this, though his own powers over time had been very different from Guinan's. Now they were just words that he had to take for granted. "So you knew. I'm impressed."
"I arranged for you to come here."
That was a different story. Q was incredulous. "How? There's no way- You couldn't have done that. I was still a Q when I decided to come here- you couldn't have influenced me..."
"Believe what you like. I told you, I know more than one trick."
He swallowed, and stepped back slightly, the counter pressing into his back. If she had that kind of power... well, it wasn't his concern anymore. Let the Continuum worry about it. "I'm sure Picard will be thrilled to hear that you brought me here."
"Captain Picard would understand my reasons."
"And those are? Simply the desire to gloat over my misfortune?"
"That, too," Guinan said candidly. "Mainly I wanted to do this."
Without warning, she brought her knee up hard into his crotch.
His entire abdominal region imploded, a black hole at the core of him tearing his flesh inward. For a split second, there was no pain, just awful numbness. Then the pain hit, a crippling wave of nauseated agony. His knees buckled, and he sank to the floor doubled over, with a gasp that would have been more like a scream if he'd been able to get a breath. It was impossible to breathe through the horrible pain and nausea- what air he could get came in as gasps, and what he could breathe out left as whimpers. Guinan had killed him. He had to have massive internal injuries, be hemorrhaging to death- it was the only explanation for the hideous pain and sickness, worse than anything he'd yet experienced. He had completely misjudged her. Even knowing how much she hated him, it had never occurred to him that she would kill him.
"I haven't killed you," Guinan said coldly- had he said anything? He didn't think he had. "It's not my way. Besides, the longer you live, the longer you'll suffer."
She bent down, coming toward him. Q flinched away violently, curling into a ball and gasping, "-Don't-"
A look of contempt crossed Guinan's face. She straightened up. "You really do have 'victim' painted on your forehead," she said. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost feel sorry for you."
She turned and walked away. Q lay on the floor, trying desperately to breathe regularly again. Despite what she'd said, he was still positive he had massive internal injuries. He had to get to sickbay. He tried to struggle onto his feet, or at least his knees, but the pain wouldn't let him move properly yet.
"Uh, Guinan?" It was LaForge's voice, close by.
"Yes?" Guinan's voice replied.
"Someone's going to have to take him to sickbay now."
"He's not hurt- but go right ahead."
A hand landed on Q's arm. He turned his head and saw Geordi LaForge, kneeling next to him. "Q. Can you walk?"
"She's killed me," Q gasped. "I'm dying."
"I doubt it. Now come on. Get up and walk." LaForge tugged his arm. "I'm not carrying you to sickbay."
With LaForge's help, Q managed to stagger to his feet. "I don't think... I should walk. I must have tremendous internal injuries."
"No, you probably just feel like you do. Come on."
"How... do you know? This pain... it's unbelievable. Something's got to be broken inside."
LaForge actually smiled. "Welcome to the wonderful world of testicles, Q."
With an obvious lack of sympathy, LaForge forced Q to walk to sickbay, where they met Dr. Crusher on her way out the door. She sighed in exasperation. "What's wrong with him this time?" she asked LaForge.
"Guinan kicked him in the crotch. I don't think he's badly hurt, but I thought someone should check."
"What do you mean, not badly hurt?" Q demanded. He was still hunched over, leaning on LaForge's shoulder for support. "I'm in agony! The Calamarain didn't hurt this badly and they were killing me!"
"Right," Crusher said. "Lie down over there." She pointed at a bed and turned to LaForge. "Thanks, Geordi. You can go now if you want."
"No problem." LaForge helped Q to the bed, then left.
Crusher took her own sweet time in coming over to the bed. Q, curled up on his side, glared at her. "I'm glad to see you're in no rush."
"I was on my way out the door to go off-shift, actually." She ran the medical tricorder over him. "You're fine, nothing but bruises. You'll be sore for a few hours, but that's the extent of it."
"If there's nothing wrong with me then how can it possibly hurt so much?"
"A lot of nerve endings," Crusher said distractedly. She studied her tricorder readings. "Where did you get all these other bruises?"
"You're covered with them."
"Falling three meters to the floor of Engineering probably had something to do with it," Q said, unwilling to admit how clumsy he'd been in the shower. Besides, falling three meters to the floor of Engineering probably was where most of them came from, anyway.
"According to this you need to get some sleep. You feel tired?"
Q scowled. "I'm in too much pain to feel tired," he said, trying to determine whether he did or not. "I don't feel anything like I did when I fell asleep."
"When did you last sleep?"
He thought about it. "I don't remember. I was asleep when the first Calamarain probe happened, if that helps."
"That was over 20 hours ago." Crusher frowned. "Describe what you felt when you first fell asleep."
"I was afraid I was dying." He thought back, remembering. "I felt weak... my limbs were too heavy to move. I felt as if the life were draining out of me. I couldn't see straight... I think I fell on the bed and lost consciousness. This was in the brig. Picard said I fell asleep."
"You didn't," Crusher said. "You were drugged."
"Drugged?" Outraged, Q tried to sit up, and fell back down again as the pain stabbed through him. "Aah!"
"I think the captain's going to want to have words with the security guard on duty when you were in the brig," Crusher said, half-smiling. "There's trace elements of a soporific gas in your system."
"Then- I didn't fall asleep. I haven't experienced sleep yet."
"Not real sleep, no." She walked around the bed, so he had to roll over to continue looking at her. "You're overdue, though. Go home and get some rest."
"How can you tell?"
"To begin with, your blood fatigue poisons are up. Your neurotransmitter levels are showing an exhaustion pattern. Most importantly, though, you've been up for over 20 hours, with only a drugged nap before that, and you've had a strenuous day." She put her tricorder away.
"I don't feel tired."
"Do you have any idea what being tired feels like?" Crusher said, again in that tone of long-suffering patience.
Q realized belatedly that if he couldn't go by his experience in the brig then he probably did have no idea what being tired felt like. "I don't know."
"Arms and legs starting to feel a bit heavy? Is it more comfortable to lie and rest?"
"Yes, but I thought that was because of what Guinan did."
"Your voice is a little hoarse. Can you hear the difference?"
"I'm not sure-"
"Difficulty concentrating? Difficulty focusing vision? Headache?"
"Some of those."
"You're tired," Crusher said firmly. "I'd suggest you get into a schedule. When you wake up tomorrow, check the time, and go to bed sixteen hours after that whether you think you're tired or not. Being tired's rather subtle- human children have to be put to bed on a schedule, because they often can't tell when they should sleep and overtire themselves. You'll probably have the same problem for a few weeks."
"Oh, marvelous. What happens if I get overtired?"
"You'll be more irritable than usual- which in your case, probably means you'll provoke someone into punching you. I'd advise getting regular sleep. I'd also advise that as soon as you have some free time, look up a book on the computer called Man's Body- An Owner's Manual, and read it. It'll save you a lot of useless trips to sickbay." She turned to a nurse. "Take Q back to his quarters, please."
"Aren't you going to give me a painkiller or something? I'm still in terrible pain."
Crusher sighed. "All right." She picked up a hypo and pressed it against his arm. "Now, I'm going home for the night. Try not to have any medical emergencies- Dr. Raskin's on night duty, and he's likely to be a lot less sympathetic to you than I am."
"Is that possible?"
"He lost his lover when the Borg attacked," Crusher said tightly.
"Oh." Q nodded. It was probably a good idea to avoid sickbay tonight. It was unfair for the Enterprise crew to blame him for the lives lost to the Borg- but they weren't half as strong on fairness as they liked to pretend.
In his quarters, he lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering how one went about falling asleep. Last time it had just happened- sleep, or at least drugged unconsciousness, had overwhelmed him against his will. That didn't seem about to happen. He thought back, and remembered being unable to keep his eyes open- weren't closed eyes associated with sleep and unconsciousness? Q tried closing his eyes and staring at the blank expanse of reddish dark that action produced. Nothing.
All right, next step. Maybe he needed to be wearing specific nightclothes. He knew that humans often put on different clothes to go to bed. He got up and checked the replicator menu. There were nightgowns, nightdresses, pajamas, sleepers, and lingerie, most of which was marked "f". The pajamas seemed similar to what he wore when awake, but with softer, lighter material. He ordered a set of two-piece pajamas in red and black- he was awfully fond of red and black- put them on, lay back down and tried again. No luck.
There was something he was leaving out here, wasn't there? Q tried to remember his study of human life. He hadn't been interested in how they supported their biological existences, paying more attention to their politics, religions and emotional lives- the interesting stuff. About the only mundane things he'd bothered to look at were speech patterns and clothing. But he had to have noticed something about the way they slept- darkness! Of course! He turned off the light and lay back down. Most humans preferred to sleep in semitotal darkness. That was what he'd left out.
It was difficult to get comfortable. He tried lying on his side, his back and his stomach. The stomach, he quickly discovered, was a bad idea- the bouts with nausea and the injury Guinan had given him had made his entire abdominal region ache. The painkiller Crusher had given him mostly muted the ache, but putting pressure on it was definitely a bad idea. Lying on his side, with one arm curled up beside his body and the other underneath the pillow and his head, seemed to be the most comfortable position until the arm under the pillow started tingling. He tried to move it and discovered an awful, nauseating prickling sensation that shot through his entire arm. When he kept it totally still, it felt unpleasantly numb. Instinctively he reached for his combadge with his good arm to call sickbay. Two things stopped him- the memory of Crusher's warning and the awful prickling sensation again, overwhelming him as he accidentally moved his other arm.
Time to use the computer. "Computer, lights on!" They obligingly came on, blinding him. He blinked in pain and covered his eyes with his good arm. "Look up the following medical symptoms in arms: numbness, prickling sensations, pain, nausea generated by moving one's arm, and tell me the most simple explanation that handles all the symptoms."
"Define most simple."
Q sighed theatrically. "The most normal. The least life-threatening. This is probably something perfectly normal for humans- so far it seems everything has been."
"Possible explanation: Loss of circulation to injured limb. Possible explanation: Neural damage to injured limb. Possible explanation: Loss of injured limb. Possible-"
"Stop. What causes a loss of circulation? I want the most normal, least life-threatening explanation first."
"Steady pressure on limb can result in loss of circulation."
Steady pressure like resting his head on it for ten minutes, possibly? "If loss of circulation is caused by steady pressure, how do you restore circulation?"
"Moving injured limb will restore circulation and eliminate symptoms."
Lovely. Q tried moving it, tentatively. The unpleasant sensation came back, worse than ever. Experimentally he tried taking the limb with his other hand and moving it back and forth manually. That was a lot less painful. Soon he found that the sensation had dwindled to the point where he could move the arm itself without feeling sick. Each motion seemed to hurt a bit less, until ordinary feeling was restored. "Computer, lights off." He lay on his back and tried to find a comfortable place to put his arms. Throwing one across the bed and the other over his head seemed to be comfortable, but made him feel exposed and vulnerable. He tried pulling the blankets up over him, and discovered that they decreased the feeling of vulnerability by a good bit.
Fine. He had a comfortable position, the lights were out, his eyes were closed. Why wasn't he asleep yet?
The bruise on his knee, from bumping into the toilet, began to ache. Then the bruise on his side, from when the Calamarain had first attacked and he'd fallen to the floor of Ten-Forward. Then the bruises on his back and shoulders from falling to the floor of Engineering, the second time the Calamarain had attacked. Apparently his painkillers were wearing off.
Exasperated, Q sat up. It could not possibly be this difficult for humans to fall asleep. According to the chronometer, he had been working at this for an hour or two, and felt no closer to sleep than before. He picked up his combadge. Sickbay was out of the question and both Troi and Crusher had implied they would be going to sleep. Data wouldn't be asleep, but Data didn't sleep, and probably couldn't offer much advice on how to do it. Q called Picard.
"Picard here." The voice sounded hoarse and slightly bleary.
"Picard, how do you fall asleep?"
There was a moment of silence. Then, "Is this Q?"
"Well, of course it is."
The sound of a deep breath being taken. "How does one fall asleep."
"That's right. I've been trying for hours."
"To begin with," Picard said, in a tone that indicated his patience had run out, "one avoids being called by formerly omnipotent entities in the middle of the night."
"Oh. Did I wake you?"
"Do you have any idea what time it is?!"
Q looked over at the chronometer. "0100 hours, is what the clock says."
"0100 hours. Exactly. Well into shipboard night. You can safely assume that everyone on the day shift except for Data is asleep at this hour. Humans who are asleep do not appreciate being woken up before the appropriate time, which in my case is 0600 hours. Five entire hours from now. Now go to sleep, Q!"
"How? If I knew how to go to sleep, I'd be asleep already!"
"Count sheep," Picard snapped in exasperation.
"What sheep?" Q asked, bewildered.
The link was silent. Picard had cut him off.
Q replaced his combadge on the nighttable and stared up into the darkness of the bedroom, feeling strangely lonely. There wasn't anyone else he could call for help. The sudden quiet after the sound of a human voice was somehow more silent than the room had been before he'd called Picard, and the absence of any other presence, human or otherwise, seemed far more pronounced now. All he could hear was his own breathing and a far-distant hum, possibly the warp engines. With blackness around him, silence enveloping him and all the additional senses he'd enjoyed before gone, he felt as if he were cut off from everything.
He shifted slightly, simply to feel himself move, to know that he still existed. For the first time in his life, he was alone, completely trapped within his own mind, without the glow of the Continuum surrounding him, without even anyone to talk to. As far as the universe was concerned, he might not even exist.
His throat tightened, making it difficult to breathe. At the same time, his eyes burned, a similar but not identical sensation to when he'd gotten chemicals in them. His own utter loneliness and helplessness overwhelmed him, and the choking sensation in his throat worsened as his chest grew tight as well. Something blurred his vision. For a panicked second Q reached reflexively for his combadge, fearing that something new and horrible was happening to him. Then he realized there was no one he could call for help- the unsympathetic Dr. Raskin currently ruled sickbay, and everyone else was asleep. The thought produced a renewed wave of loneliness and despair. His breath came in ragged and uncontrollable, with small unpleasant sounds in it that he couldn't seem to stop, and when he reached his hand to his eyes the hand came away wet.
That explained it, then. He might know little about human biological functions, but he knew how they showed emotion. Wet eyes meant tears. He was crying.
Q turned over and curled up in a ball, clutching the pillow to himself and muffling his sobs in it. He should have been humiliated, mortified to have sunk so low, but he couldn't muster up the strength. The fact was that he had sunk unbelievably far, from the heights of godhead to the lowliest of the low. There was no more room for humiliation in him. He was hurt and exhausted and desperately alone, and he clung to the pillow like a lifeline and cried like an abandoned human child. Take me back, please. I can't bear this any more. I've learned my lesson, I swear. Oh, please, take me back, take me back...
Some time later his whole body jerked, and he opened his eyes to darkness. His pajamas were drenched and sticking to his body, the blankets tangled around him. The chronometer read 0423 hours. His eyes burned, his mouth was dry, his head pounded, and he was trembling uncontrollably.
This was his quarters aboard the Enterprise, not the courtroom he'd devised. It had been a hallucination- a horribly vivid hallucination. Not insane too, he moaned silently. Please don't let me be going insane on top of everything else.
Q struggled out of the bedclothes and changed into one of the outfits he'd had the replicator make him earlier, realized there was no point to doing so because the source of the dampness was his own sweat, undressed again and stumbled into the bathroom. All the bruises he'd acquired yesterday, or today, or whenever it had been, had decided they were going to hurt. The light in the bathroom was acutely painful for a few moments, but his eyes adapted quickly enough. He washed, a bit more proficiently this time, dried himself and drank two glasses of water. He then got dressed in a different outfit and sat down in a chair in his room to decide what to do next. The trembling had lessened slightly, but hadn't entirely gone away.
He had to know what this meant. The things he'd hallucinated had proceeded in a sequence, like a story, but there were nonsensical, illogical gaps and leaps throughout, things he hadn't noticed at the time but that seemed glaringly obvious now. Had one of his people briefly sent him into some sort of mad scenario? Or was he himself going mad? Or was there a perfectly innocent explanation that he simply didn't know? For the thousandth time, he wished he'd picked a different species, or studied what human lives were actually like a bit more carefully. His own ignorance terrified him. But it was still late at night- Picard had said that he got up at 0600 hours, still 11/2 hours from now, and undoubtedly no one else would be awake either. He considered calling sickbay anyway, Raskin or no- surely a doctor would be honor-bound to help him despite personal feelings? Then he remembered a bit more human history, realized he was being shockingly naive, and shook his head. Calling sickbay was out of the question.
Data would be awake, though. Assuming the android had been let out of sickbay- and Q hadn't seen him there earlier- Data would neither be on duty nor asleep at this hour. At least, Q hoped he wouldn't be on duty. "Computer, give me the status of Commander Data."
"Lieutenant Commander Data is in his quarters."
"Which are where, exactly? Draw me a map."
A schematic of the Enterprise came up, with Data's and Q's quarters and the path between them clearly labeled. Q studied the schematic until he was sure he could make it- he did not want to have to ask anyone directions- and then set off. Data might not himself sleep, but he definitely knew more about the condition than Q did. And if Data couldn't explain the hallucinations either, and it became necessary to go to sickbay, Q wanted to have someone he trusted go with him to protect him.
Data's voice sounded over the intercom. "Come in."
The door slid open, and Q stepped through. Data was sitting at a console, looking up with a slightly puzzled expression on his face. "Q. I am surprised to see you still awake."
"I tried to sleep, but I just had the most horrible experience." He reconsidered. "Well, not the most horrible. This has been a day just chock-full of horrible experiences. But a horrible experience, anyway. I was hoping you could explain what it was."
"I will try," Data said. "What sort of horrible experience did you have?"
Q sat down in a chair across from the console. "I... hallucinated."
"Only I thought it was real. But it couldn't have been real, because it made no sense."
"Can you describe your hallucination?"
Q nodded. "It's vague now. I'm having a hard time remembering parts of it- which is just as well, considering how awful it was. But- I thought I had my powers, and I was going to take Picard back to the 21st century. I don't remember why- no, I do remember why. I wanted to show him how barbaric humanity could get. And there was this woman with us, and she was Picard's girlfriend, and a friend of mine. But she isn't anyone who really exists. I took all of us back to the 21st century, the post-atomic horror, where I met Guinan and Questioner-"
"Queria. Questioner. Whatever she's calling herself. She's another of the Q. When she takes a name in a mortal language, it's usually a variant on 'questioner'. Anyway, she was there, and Guinan. They said that I wasn't allowed to influence time... and they took my powers away. And then the Cleris stormtroopers showed up."
"What are Cleris stormtroopers?"
"The Cleris used to be a particularly nasty race as nasty races go. I remember thinking at the time, 'Wait, this is Earth, not Cleris. Someone else must be interfering.' But I couldn't use my powers. The woman- I don't remember her name, it started with a V or something- was insisting that this was some game I was playing, that I had to get us out of there now. She wouldn't believe that I couldn't. Then the stormtroopers killed her." Q frowned. "I felt guilty. Horribly so. As if I'd killed her. I thought of her as a friend... and I couldn't protect her. Then Picard started accusing me of having gotten us into this and gotten her killed. And the stormtroopers took us to a courtroom... and it was mine."
Data tilted his head slightly. "The courtroom that you tried the Enterprise crew in?"
"Yes. Exactly. And someone who was wearing my form- who looked exactly like I did when I was being the judge- was being the judge. I told him that I'd reserved that form for my use, that he wasn't allowed to take it. And he laughed, and he said he was me. From the past. And he was putting me on trial for crimes against the Q, or maybe crimes against myself... It was just horrible." Q shuddered. "The stormtroopers were going to shoot me... and then I was back in my bedroom aboard the Enterprise. I don't understand any of it. Did someone send me into some cruel scenario? Did any of it really happen?"
"What you experienced was most certainly a dream, Q."
Data nodded solemnly. "Yes. Dreaming is a fundamental part of the human sleep cycle. Since the dream you experienced was unpleasant, it might be more precisely described as a nightmare."
Q nodded. "That sounds about right." A horrible thought suddenly struck him. "Wait a minute. You mean I'm going to have to go through this every night?"
"If you mean to ask if you will dream every night, then yes. Humans invariably dream several times in a sleep cycle. However, some humans remember none of their dreams, and few remember all. Moreover, only a small percentage of dreams are nightmares, or bad dreams. Though I cannot speak from personal experience, I have observed that most humans find the act of dreaming to be overall a pleasurable experience. The sort of disturbing scenario you describe is relatively rare."
"What percentage? How many of these nightmares can I expect to have?"
"I know of no way to determine that." Data cocked his head, thinking about it. "While I know of no studies that have been done on the subject, it is axiomatic among humans that emotional stress can produce nightmares."
"Oh, wonderful!" Q sank back in the chair. "Data, I'm probably going to be under emotional stress for the rest of my life!"
"For your sake, I hope you are wrong," Data said, sounding slightly concerned- though maybe that was Q's imagination. Could Data feel concerned? "Emotional stress is very damaging to humans, both physically and mentally. If, as you believe, you suffer from emotional stress for the rest of your life, I am afraid that life will be significantly shortened."
"Yes, well, I expected that." Q studied the floor for a moment. The depression threatened to overwhelm him again. Quickly he looked up, back at Data. "Tell me something, Data. Why did you save my life, before?"
"It would not have been ethical to do otherwise."
"Ah. So you would've done the same for anyone."
"That is correct."
"How do you feel?"
Data seemed to consider. "I am functioning within normal parameters. Though the process to restore me to function was time-consuming and labor-intensive, it seems to have been completely successful. I am not aware of any lingering damage."
"Well, that's good."
"Thank you. How do you feel?"
"Miserable." Q hunched over slightly in his chair. "Somewhere I seem to have managed to pick up at least one bruise on every major body part, my stomach still hurts and my head is killing me. If you're asking if there's any lingering effects from the Calamarain, though, I don't think so- though so much of the rest of me hurts that I'm not sure I'd be able to tell."
"I am sorry to hear that." Data studied Q. "I have noticed that you look unwell. Your eyes, for instance, are inflamed. Do they feel sore?"
"Yeah. I got soap in them before." Q imagined the fact that he'd spent however long it had been bawling like a baby probably had something to do with it too, but he wasn't about to admit that part, not even to Data. "This whole day- how long has it been, anyway? Since I came aboard?"
"33 hours and 52 minutes."
"Well, then, this whole day and a half has been absolutely the worst day of my entire existence." He looked at the floor again. "Data, I'm grateful to you for saving my life- don't think I'm not- but next time, don't bother."
Data frowned slightly in puzzlement. "Why not?"
"Because it's just not worth it."
"I see." Data leaned forward slightly. "Q, I do not mean to pry, but it is important that I know. Are you in danger of taking your own life?"
Q stared at Data for several seconds incredulously, and then began to laugh. Data seemed confused. "I did not intend a joke. Have I unintentionally said something funny?"
"Oh, Data," Q laughed. "I may be stunningly ignorant of human biology and customs, but not even I am that astonishingly naive."
"Was the question inappropriate?"
Q sobered. "No. It was a perfectly appropriate question, assuming you'd get a straight answer- but the odds against me giving a straight answer to that question are pretty low."
"I do not understand."
"Let me clarify, then. If I were to say yes, you'd try to stop me. Am I right?"
"I thought so. You'd put me on a suicide watch or something, right? Well, we'll ignore the question of your ethical right to stop me or lack thereof for now, and analyze what I'm likely to say in response. If I did plan to kill myself, I'd be a fool to tell you so- you'd stop me. So if the truthful answer was yes, I'd reply no. On the other hand, if I just wanted to get attention, I might well say yes."
"Are there any circumstances under which you would answer the question truthfully?" Data asked.
Q sighed. "For what it's worth, these circumstances." He smiled briefly. "Having just told you you can't trust me to give you a straight answer, I'm now about to ask you to trust that I'm doing so. I am utterly and completely miserable and likely to remain so for the duration of my human life- but I've been told that if I stick it out, my people might take me back. I'm not about to give up my chance at getting my powers back."
"So there is some chance, then."
"That's what they told me."
"I am glad for you."
Q looked at Data, startled. "Are you? Really?"
"Not really. I am incapable of feeling glad. But I have observed that when humans have an opportunity that gives them pleasure, it is polite to express happiness for them."
"Right." Q studied Data for a second or two, frowning. "Considering what I've done to you and your friends, if you did have emotions, you probably wouldn't be glad anyway."
"If you do not truly desire to die, why did you ask me not to save you should you be endangered again?"
"Because I'm depressed, and I'm likely to say stupid, illogical things for as long as I'm depressed."
"Ah. So you did not truly mean it."
"No- yes. In a way. If I'm in danger again, and you can save me without any risk to yourself, by all means, please do. But if it involves risking your own life- that's when not to bother."
"It'd be a foolish waste. You're enjoying your life a great deal more than I'm enjoying mine."
"Q, I am not sure you understand. I am an android. I do not actually feel enjoyment."
"Yeah, well, zero is still considerably larger than negative six billion, isn't it?"
Data frowned quizzically at Q, who elucidated. "Whatever it is you get out of living, you're getting more of it than I am. And I don't want to owe a debt like that. I already owe you more than I'm going to get a chance to pay back unless I get my powers back."
"I am not tallying up debts," Data said.
"Maybe you're not. I'm sure everyone else on this ship is. I have enough problems without everyone deciding to blame me for your death or something."
"I see. Should the situation arise again, I will consider your wishes. However, I cannot promise that I will be able to honor them." Data hesitated for a moment. "It is very late. I think it would be best if you went to sleep soon."
Oh. Or in other words, Data had better things to do than talk to Q. "Am I to take it that you're kicking me out?"
Data tilted his head slightly, seeming puzzled. "'Kicking you out'?"
"I'm interrupting something of no doubt vital importance that you want to get back to, so you're trying to shoo me away. Right?"
"Ah. I see your meaning. No, I am not trying to 'shoo you away'. I am perfectly capable of holding a conversation with you and simultaneously attending to the task I am performing. Actually, I am finding our conversation most intriguing. I have never before encountered a being who has been transformed into a human from some other state. I had not considered the difficulties such a transformation would entail, and the problems you bring up have given me some insight into the human condition. It seems that I know more about being human than I had thought, a circumstance which I find gratifying to discover."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad somebody's getting something out of this."
"Yes. It is not my desire to curtail this discussion; I simply mean that it would be best for you to sleep. If you entrain your sleep schedule to the day period, you will consistently be awake when all the regular crew aside from myself are asleep, which will present difficulties for you. It might be best for you to sleep now, and attempt to entrain yourself to a regular day/night cycle."
"I don't want to go to sleep." Q leaned back in the chair slightly, folding his arms in tightly, as if wrapping himself in them. "The last time I tried, I..." Was overwhelmed with existential angst and started bawling like an infant. "...I felt very... lonely. It was as if, all of a sudden, I was completely alone in the universe. As if no one else existed- as if I myself might not exist. It's not an experience I'm eager to repeat."
"I see." Data considered. "Humans often suffer a period of extreme emotional vulnerability in the earliest hours of the morning. Feelings of loneliness, despair and fear are not uncommon at such times. It is as if the normal defenses of the mind are weakened by exhaustion and by the physiological depression in circadian rhythms accompanying that time period."
"What do humans normally do about it?"
"One solution is to do as you are, and hold a conversation with someone else. A more productive solution, resulting in effective sleep, might be to listen to relaxing music, or to sleep with the light on. These are recommended solutions for individuals suffering from insomnia associated with depression, stress or fear of the dark."
"I thought you had to have the lights off to go to sleep."
"No. While many humans prefer to sleep in darkness, it is not a necessary condition."
"Oh. Thanks. I'll try that." Q considered getting up and going back to his room to do so, but the chair was very comfortable, he didn't feel like moving, and Data's advice or no, he still didn't want to face being alone again. "You've really helped me a lot, Data. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"You would undoubtedly have consulted someone else."
From anyone else, it would have been a sarcastic or facetious comment. From Data, it was simply a statement of fact. "Yes, but... they wouldn't have been as much help."
Data seemed surprised. "Surely a human would be better able to counsel you through the difficulties being human presents than I could. I have no experience of the things I have advised you on. It is very possible that my advice could be unintentionally misleading or incomplete."
"That's not why. Certainly they'd be able to give me better advice than you can, but they wouldn't. They'd get impatient. Or judge me. Or refuse to help, or give deliberately misleading advice. Data, with your ethical programming, and your desire to match up to your ideal of humanity, and without human emotions like anger or resentment to cloud the issue, you're a lot more compassionate than most human beings. Even Counselor Troi, with all her talk about how this is supposed to be a learning experience for me. I'm sure she's secretly filled with glee at watching me struggle. Picard just wants to get rid of me. None of them except for you are really willing to give me the time of day." He felt his throat tightening with emotion again, and cursed inwardly. Oh, no. I'm not breaking that far again. Q drew a deep breath and took refuge in anger. "You're the only one I'll miss out of everyone on this forsaken starship."
"Then you must be looking forward to transferring to starbase 56."
Q stared. "It's been decided already?" he asked, and heard a tremor in his own voice. "Well. Picard certainly doesn't waste any time, does he."
"Captain Picard is remarkably efficient. It is one of the traits that make him such an effective starship commander." Data studied Q. "You appear to be somewhat distressed."
"I- you could say that."
"Are you apprehensive about the transfer?"
Q laughed sharply. "'Apprehensive' doesn't begin to describe it, Data. Try stark raving terror."
Data frowned. "I do not understand. Why should you fear leaving a place where you feel that people dislike you?"
"I don't know anybody there. At least you people are the devil I know. I chose to come to the Enterprise, you know." He remembered what Guinan had said, and decided to ignore it. At least he could preserve the illusion of having had free will. Besides, Guinan could well have lied. She was good at that. "Of all the mortal groups I've recently interacted with, I had the most hopes for this one. I thought... Well, it doesn't matter what I thought. But how many times am I going to get kicked out of something? The way things are going, I won't be at the starbase long, either. They'll throw me off it. You just watch."
Data nodded. "Ah. You are experiencing the fear of abandonment."
"Well, of course I am!" Q exploded. "My entire species threw me out, Data, I don't think it's unreasonable for me to want stability somewhere, is it?"
"It is certainly understandable. Often humans will fear a potentially positive opportunity because it reminds them of a negative event they have previously experienced. It is obvious why you would fear being abandoned. But that is not the case here. Captain Picard is not abandoning you, Q. It is merely that the most appropriate place for you is not aboard the Enterprise." Data leaned forward slightly. "You say that we are 'the devil you know'. The fact that you know no one aboard Starbase 56 is not necessarily a disadvantage, however. It is an opportunity for a fresh start. Perhaps you will find that humans are not quite the devils you think them to be."
"It still feels like Picard's kicking me out," Q muttered.
"I am sorry you feel that way," Data said earnestly. "But I am sure your experiences will be more positive in a place where your past history will not unduly influence people's opinions of you."
"Or in other words, among people I didn't throw tests at," Q murmured. He didn't much feel like continuing the argument. Maybe Data was right and things would be better there. He yawned and closed his eyes, leaning back against the chair's headrest.
"You appear to be very tired. Perhaps you should go to bed."
"I will. In a few minutes. I just want to sit and rest for a moment..." The red from the light made such interesting patterns against his closed eyelids. Why hadn't he noticed that before?
Distantly he was aware of someone shaking him. He opened his eyes and mumbled something. Data was standing over him, looking concerned.
"Q, you have fallen asleep. I think you would be more comfortable if you returned to your room. That chair is not designed for sleeping in."
Had he been asleep? He had no awareness of having lost consciousness. He'd just closed his eyes, and then Data started shaking him. It was a tremendous effort to form words. "Mm. Guess so." The phrase came out slurred, sounding like "gssso" or something.
"I will escort you back to your room."
With an effort of will, Q woke himself up a bit. Was this how it felt to be truly tired? He wanted nothing more than to collapse in the chair and shut out the universe. "Won't be... you don't need to. I won't get lost."
"Perhaps not, but it is unsafe for you to roam the Enterprise unescorted."
"Troi said that too. What do you mean unsafe? I can hardly fall into the warp core by accident."
Data hesitated. "There are members of the crew who lost friends and family to the Borg, in the encounter you provoked. They may well blame you for their loss. Starfleet personnel are trained to place personal feelings aside for the sake of duty... it would, however, be reckless to place undue burdens on people."
Q hadn't considered that at all. And he should have, after the encounters with Nichols and Guinan, after being warned about Dr. Raskin. He was wasting much too much time fearing things that were normal for humans and ignoring real and present dangers to his well-being. Something else he had to be grateful to Data for. "Oh... I hadn't thought... I must be stupid with exhaustion. Thanks."
He was barely aware of the trip back to his room. Without Data supporting him, he might not have made it, might have collapsed from exhaustion and curled up to sleep on the corridor floor. Through the haze of oncoming sleep, he was aware of Data helping him to bed. He tried to mutter another thanks, shamed at his own incompetence, but it was difficult to form words and it probably didn't matter anyway. The moment he hit the bed, sleep drowned him.
So much for his first day of being human.
Data had helped him with so many things, but about the starbase, he'd been dead wrong.
Q would be the first to admit that he had, perhaps, not gone as far out of his way as he could to be pleasant when he'd first come to Starbase 56. He hadn't been able to shake the feeling of being abandoned, and he'd been in a miserable mood when he'd arrived- besides, humans expected too much of him. They had all spent their entire lives interacting with each other in a social context, trying to make fellow humans- or fellow sentients, in the case of non-humans- like them. Q's social experience was entirely different. In the Continuum, everyone automatically knew what everyone else was thinking. Often relationships with fellow Q were superficially antagonistic- it was one of the ways the younger Q maintained their individuality against the pressure of the Continuum overmind. As for his relationships with mortals, while he had in the past taken on some outwardly pleasant roles, most of his experience was with playing the devil's advocate, the trickster, the tester of limits. That had been his chosen role, to study mortals by challenging and antagonizing them. Now that he was human, few people made allowances for where his experience lay. They were too limited to recognize his attempts to make emotional contact. After a while he stopped trying, by which time he was thoroughly despised by every last soul on the starbase.
There was also the fact that the work he'd taken on was outrageously difficult. His intelligence had, of course, been lowered tremendously by his transformation. There were concepts he had understood with ease once, that now he could no longer even remember. Anything his mortal brain couldn't handle, he had lost the knowledge of. So anything he remembered and understood had to be something that it was at least theoretically possible for humanoid mortals to comprehend.
It was something of a boost to his ego to discover how much more he understood than the scientists who came to him; he might be human, but at least he was a human genius. However, as much of an ego boost as it might be, it was a definite disadvantage in teaching. The Federation had said it would send its best and brightest. In Q's opinion, they were either lying or their best and brightest were utterly pathetic. Only a very few people could understand most of everything he tried to convey without a dog and pony show for explanation. Most of the scientists who came to him needed to have things explained, and explained again, and explained in different terms, and still they didn't get it, until Q wanted to drop-kick them into the nearest black hole. Discussions of history and anthropology were somewhat better; if he remembered an alien culture well enough to discuss it, he was usually able to explain it in terms the historians could understand without too much difficulty. But physics was a nightmare.
There were a few bright spots. On the rare occasions when the scientists sent to him could follow him without difficulty, discussing physics, or anything, was intensely pleasurable. He enjoyed being the center of attention, and he enjoyed stimulating conversations. Perversely, that made it so much worse when he had to teach stupid people- perhaps if he'd never known teaching could be enjoyable, it wouldn't have been so unbearable when it wasn't.
Other problems plagued him. He had never gotten used to sleeping, or to dreams. Constant nightmares made him an insomniac, terrified by sleep, and so he needed to take sedatives almost every night. And then there were the perpetual tiny aches and pains that apparently came with being human; he'd almost forgotten what it felt like not to hurt. At first, he consumed painkillers as if they were candy; when he started needing higher and higher dosages, though, Dr. Li had restricted his access to them. Fearing that Li would do the same with the sedatives, or that Anderson would use control of his drug supply to control him, he had started stockpiling sedatives in his quarters, which meant there were several nights when he had to go without, and either stay up all night or suffer his dreams. The lack of his Q senses had never stopped bothering him. There were times when he would look out at the stars and realize he would never see them in their true beauty again, never watch the dancing ions at the core of the nuclear bridal chamber in the stars' hearts, and he would come perilously close to weeping. He would never create anything again- he had tried his hand at holosculpture and a few other creative arts, and destroyed his own creations in rage at how far they fell short of what he'd once been capable of.
The first year, he'd felt like he had a purpose. Following his warning about the coming Borg invasion, Starfleet took him up on his offer to help them prepare. He had worked feverishly in cooperation with Starfleet scientists and engineers, helping them design shields that might hold against the Borg, weapons that could damage the machine entities; had talked to Starfleet tacticians, telling them everything he knew about the enemy. Studying the Borg had been a minor hobby of his, as studying humanity itself had been; his knowledge of the cyborg race was extensive. He had been glued to his viewscreen with everyone else on the starbase as the battle reports from Wolf 359 came in. And when the Borg invasion had been driven back, the Borg themselves crippled and possibly destroyed forever, he had felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. He had helped save his adopted species from destruction. Better still, they knew it. His role in the battle was acknowledged and thanked. For a while, even on Starbase 56, where familiarity had long ago bred contempt, people were genuinely grateful to him, and it showed.
Things had gone downhill after that. The emotional high of the successful fight against the Borg gave way to an emotional low, as his life seemed to lose purpose. That was when his teaching work started to become unbearable, when Starfleet seemed to inflict truly stupid people on him in droves. One night, as he prepared to take his sedative, the pointlessness of it all overwhelmed him, and he took the entire amount of sedative he'd stockpiled, planning to sleep forever.
He'd woken up in sickbay, having been found unconscious by Commodore Anderson and a security escort. For a while after that, everyone went out of their way to be kind to him. That helped. He enjoyed the attention and the solicitude- it made him feel much better, enough better that he no longer wanted to die. But things got bad again before long. He had been placed on medical restriction, no longer permitted to replicate or stockpile any medical supplies in his quarters- he had to go to sickbay every time he needed a painkiller or sedative, which got very tedious very fast. When a well-liked officer was killed protecting him against yet another alien with a grudge, the mood on the starbase turned ugly. Q began to fear that his protectors no longer wished to play that role, and might themselves kill him. Once again overcome by despair, Q took an antique ceramic mug that he kept in his quarters, smashed it, and slashed his wrists with the sharp edges.
Later he found out he'd done it wrong. Not only were the cuts too shallow, but he'd cut across his wrists, not along them, making it much easier for him to be saved. 24th century medical technology took away even the scars. This time he got no sympathy. People- Commodore Eleanor Anderson and Dr. Brian Li in particular- seemed to think he'd done it to get attention. Medellin had rescued him from the pits of despair only by pointing out to him that the Continuum still might take him back. That tiny hope had been all that kept him going for months afterward. And gradually, he lost even that.
Over time, Q sank into a terrible numbness, a soul-destroying ennui. The acute desperation of those two terrible nights faded, replaced by a lack of ability to feel much of anything at all. He made Anderson's life hell just to give himself something to do. He tormented the scientists who came to him because he wasn't allowed to refuse to see them- like a prostitute with an unforgiving and greedy pimp, he had no choice about who used his services. His movements were restricted, ostensibly to keep him safe, and his quarters were stripped of sharp and breakable objects. For a while, they'd even put a monitor in, but he'd gone on a hunger strike until they took it out. He had done his best to hide his growing disgust with his life- none of them had the power to help him, and he'd grown sick of their useless pity. And their incompetent attempts at counseling, like Medellin's suggestion of a vacation. As if a vacation could help. As if anything could help.
Q had planned and researched this, determined not to be saved from himself this time. He had searched for a loophole in the interdict on medical supplies or sharp objects, and found that he could still get recreational materials out of his replicator, such as art supplies. Back when he'd experimented with creative arts, he'd used a highly corrosive acid as an etching solution, and he remembered the danger warnings on the bottle. If there was a more poisonous substance available, he hadn't heard of it. He'd gotten the stuff a week ago, and had spent the time considering his decision, weighing the pain it would cause him against the pain of staying alive.
His mind was made up now.
All you folks out there in the gallery, it might be a good idea to get out your popcorn and peanuts and sit down to watch. No doubt you'll find this vastly entertaining.
"Cheers," he said, raised the bottle to his lips, and drank.
Medellin stopped by Anderson's office on her way to her own. Anderson glanced up. "Did you have your conversation with Mr. Sunshine?" she asked.
"Yes." Medellin sat down. "I think Sekal was right to be worried, Lea. He's pretty bad. I'd like your authorization to send him on vacation."
"On vacation." Anderson mulled it over. "Vacation where? And are you sure that'll help any, Nian?"
"I don't know if it'll help- but he's not enjoying his work, he has no social life here-"
"That's hardly our fault," Anderson said, somewhat acerbically. "If he wanted a social life, he might consider being fractionally less of an asshole."
Medellin sighed. "No, it's not our fault, but we're not really the ones paying the price for it. Q is. It was stupid and shortsighted of him to antagonize everyone, but I'm not sure he understood how important it is to have good relations with one's co-workers... and now, of course, there's a snowball effect involved. It would take such a herculean effort for Q to change his image on the starbase now that I don't think he's capable of it, even if I convinced him that that's what he needs. No, I think he needs to get away for a few weeks. Do you realize that everyone on this base except for him has either taken leave or a vacation in the past three years?"
Anderson frowned. "I thought everyone was required to take leave at least once a year."
"Everyone in Starfleet is. Q's not Starfleet. All our other civilians have spent some time off the base in the past three years- he hasn't. I'd like to send him to Earth, Commodore- there's no way some alien assassin is going to get through Earth's defenses. He should be as safe there as he is here."
"On the other hand, Earth's hardly a place we want alien assassins to be trying to get to. There's a reason we're out in the middle of nowhere, you know."
"Three weeks or so isn't really enough time for anyone to track him down. Especially if he goes incognito, we can prevent anyone from tracking him through mundane means. There are all these psionic aliens and beings that manage to find him by what might as well be magic to worry about still, but... for three weeks? Don't you think it's a justified risk? He's so miserable, Lea. We've got to do something."
"I'm not convinced Earth's the best place. And what about all the people I've got lined up with appointments to speak with him?"
"If he kills himself, they won't get to talk with him either."
Anderson nodded. "That's true. We'll just have to-"
The intercom interrupted her. "Ops to Commodore Anderson."
She sighed. "Hang on to that thought, Nian." She touched her combadge. "Anderson here."
"We've got a visitor- a Dr. T'Laren off the Ketaya- here to see Q."
"She's not scheduled, is she?" If she was, there had been a phenomenal screw-up somewhere along the line, as Anderson hadn't been notified of the appointment. She had given Q the next few days off on the assumption that he had no visitors scheduled.
"She's got a priority code from Starfleet."
Anderson's head was starting to throb. "Dock her and let her in to see me. I'll decide if her business warrants seeing Q without an appointment or not."
Medellin stood up. "Do you want me to go see if he's in any shape to take visitors?"
"Yes, good idea." Anderson pressed her hand to her head and massaged her throbbing temples as Medellin left. Sending Q on vacation was sounding like an awfully good idea, since it would give Anderson a vacation from Q. She'd have to consider whether or not it was too risky to send him to Earth, but certainly it seemed a gift from heaven to have him go somewhere else. Anywhere that wasn't Starbase 56.
Medellin headed away from Anderson's office, toward the section of the base where Starfleet personnel, VIPs, and Q were quartered. Something was nagging at the back of her head, something she'd done, or hadn't done. She reviewed her conversation with Q earlier this morning. Was there something she'd left undone there? Something she hadn't said?
What if his condition was even worse than she'd guessed?
A sudden horrible premonition struck her. Medellin broke into a run, charging down the corridors. Though her ESP rating was minimal, barely above human average, though she'd never suffered a premonition before, she knew that something terrible had happened.
She ran through the foyer to Q's suite, skidded to a halt in front of the door and touched the panel to open. The door remained shut- locked. "Computer, open door. Medical override, Counselor Medellin!"
The door slid open. Medellin ran inside, through the living quarters of the suite, back into the bedroom. Q lay sprawled face-down on the floor of the bedroom, a half-empty bottle of colorless liquid lying near his hand, its contents spilled in a pool on the floor. It smelled strongly of acid. There were splashes of blood lying in and around the acid pool, fresh and bright red. Medellin ran to Q, hitting her combadge. "Medellin to transporter room, medical emergency! Transport Q and myself to sickbay immediately!"
A moment later there was no one in the room. The etching solvent continued to spill slowly onto the floor, eroding the rug.
Anderson stood to greet T'Laren as the visitor entered her office. As the name suggested, T'Laren was a female Vulcan, with the typical swarthy skin and dark eyes of that species. She was striking, interesting-looking, but far from beautiful. Her eyes were big and wide-set, her nose was a tad too long for human standards of beauty, and her chin was a bit on the strong side. She was tall, though not nearly as tall as Anderson, and her body was somewhat gawky and thin, dressed in a blue civilian shipsuit that emphasized her gawkiness. She appeared to be in her late twenties, which probably translated to late thirties or early forties for a Vulcan. What saved her from complete nondescript plainness was a pair of magnificent Vulcan cheekbones and a very un-Vulcan pile of curly black hair, cut in only the vaguest approximation of the typical Vulcan bowl cut. Anderson stared for a moment. She had met Vulcans with odd coloring, such as blonde or redhaired Vulcans, but she'd never met one without relentlessly straight hair. T'Laren's hair was short, but it was most definitely curly. Unruly wisps of it fell down, partially obscuring the points of her ears.
Anderson bowed slightly, the accepted form of greeting with Vulcans. "Dr. T'Laren. I confess this is something of a surprise- I hadn't been notified you were coming."
"I hope it wasn't any inconvenience," T'Laren said. Anderson had to fight to keep a straight face. T'Laren spoke English with a Texas accent. Faint, but unmistakable.
Who is this woman?
"Not an inconvenience- exactly," Anderson said. She gestured at a chair. "Sit down if you like."
T'Laren seated herself, and Anderson did likewise. "If it wasn't exactly an inconvenience, I have to assume it was something close to one, or you'd have said, 'No, not at all.' So in what sense is my visit presenting problems?"
"Well, your timing is bad. Q's been very depressed lately. The situation's been worsened by some recent bad news- his first contact with humanity, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, recently passed away, and Q asked me for a few days off to mourn him. Or to do something. You have to understand, Doctor." What was she a doctor of, anyway? "Q is difficult enough to deal with when he's feeling well. I could order him to see you, but he's depressed enough to make your life and mine hell for it. Especially since I promised him a few days off."
"By all means, give him time off. I would like him to hear me out in a reasonable mood."
"You might have to wait a while. Q's very rarely in a reasonable mood."
"I know. I've studied his psychological profile in detail."
Anderson frowned. Few scientists who came to speak with Q bothered to look at his psych profile. Actually, few would even have access to it. "What exactly is your business with Q?" she asked.
T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Starfleet didn't notify you, then. You not only weren't told I was coming- you weren't told who I am."
"They didn't tell me a damn thing, Doctor. You're not on our schedule- I don't even know what your specialty is."
"Xenopsychology, specializing in human."
Anderson stared at her blankly. "Then what do you want to talk to Q for? He knows less about human psychology, or anyone's psychology, than anyone you're ever likely to meet."
"Ah. You mistake my purpose here. I'm not here to see Q in the sense most of your visitors are, Commodore- it would be more precise to say I'm here for Q." T'Laren steepled her hands in front of her. "Starfleet Command's psychology division has grown somewhat concerned that we may lose him. I'm sure you're aware of what a valuable resource Q is for the Federation-"
"A day doesn't go by without him reminding me," Anderson said dryly. "Let me get this straight. You're a psychologist for humans, and you're here to counsel Q?"
"I am a xenopsychologist. My specialty is humans, but I'm acquainted with the psychology of numerous species. And I'm not precisely here to counsel Q. I'm here to take him with me."
"Mind telling me why?"
"Not at all. It is the opinion of Starfleet Command- and having studied your Counselor Medellin's reports, I concur- that Starbase 56 is doing an admirable job of protecting Q from physical dangers, but is itself an unhealthy environment for his psyche. It's obvious that you dislike him, from the little you've said in our conversation so far."
"Everyone dislikes him, Doctor- he's not a likable person. He goes out of his way to make people's lives hell. He's obnoxious, insubordinate, amoral, and unbelievably selfish. If he has a good point, I can't think of it offhand."
"And is this opinion shared by others on your starbase?"
Anderson sighed. "Counselor Medellin is a bit more forgiving than I am. Commander Sekal is a Vulcan and can put up with him. Other than that- yes, I'd have to say everyone shares that opinion. Dr. T'Laren, you don't know him. You haven't seen what he can do."
"I've studied his psych profile- which concurs with you. He has no social skills. Unfortunately for him, he comes from a social species and has been adopted into one. He has as much need for social contact as any human- he simply has no idea how to get it."
"And taking him off the starbase is supposed to give it to him?"
"He's not only suffering a lack of friends, Commodore. He's suffering a loss of freedom as well. We're discussing an entity who at one point had complete freedom of the universe. We have confined a being who is accustomed to traveling between galaxies to a single starbase, and expect him to adjust to it."
T'Laren had said nothing in an accusatory tone; everything was even and matter-of-fact. In the case of Vulcans, however, it was usually more what they said than how they said it, and Anderson was detecting a lot of accusatory implications. Defensively she said, "It was his choice! He agreed to come here for protection- he couldn't survive away from the base's defenses!"
"I'm not accusing you of anything, Commodore Anderson." T'Laren looked startled that someone would make that inference. "You've done the best you could in a very trying situation. But I believe that right now, the greatest danger to Q is himself. I believe that the environment on Starbase 56 is causing or at least exacerbating his depression, and I believe that I can't hope to treat the condition until he's been removed from the situation. I-"
Medellin's voice over the com interrupted T'Laren. "Commodore, this is Nian. We've got an emergency in sickbay with Q."
Anderson was on her feet. "He tried to kill himself again?"
Medellin's voice was grim. "He might have succeeded this time."
"On my way."
T'Laren stood also. "I'd like to come as well, Commodore."
"Right." Anderson had no intention of standing around and arguing. If the woman was supposed to be Q's new psychiatrist, she might as well see what she was up against. "Come on."
Sickbay was in chaos. Dr. Li and a sizable portion of his medical staff were clustered around one bed, presumably Q's- even as tall as Anderson was, she couldn't see over the mass of heads and bodies surrounding the bed. Medellin was by the door, hands clasped together in front of her. "It's my fault, Commodore," she said, voice wretched with guilt. "I should have had him on a suicide watch immediately. I missed the signs completely."
"We'll assign blame later, Counselor. I want to know what happened."
"I had a premonition that something bad had happened to him- maybe I sensed my mistake earlier. I ran all the way to his room. When I got there, I found him on the floor. He'd drunk half a bottle of acid etching solution." Her recitation was calm, focused, at odds with her miserable expression. "He couldn't have done it more than thirty seconds before I got there. If I'd been a fraction faster, I could have gotten to him before he had a chance to drink."
"It was suicide, though. Not another mistake." In Q's first few months at Starbase 56, he had turned up at sickbay more than once with a case of gastric upset from eating something he hadn't known not to eat- though none of his mistakes had been of this magnitude.
Medellin shook her head. "It was most definitely suicide. Q hasn't made mistakes like that in years. Besides, he had to have gone out of his way to get that bottle. He hasn't done anything like etching in two years."
"All right." Anderson tapped her combadge. "Anderson to Engineering."
The chief engineer answered. "Goetz here, Commodore."
"Get someone to find out for me when and where Q got hold of a bottle of etching solution."
T'Laren asked, "Are you accustomed to having premonitions, Counselor?"
"Not at all." Medellin flushed slightly. "I guess it wasn't logical- I've got no esper rating worth speaking of. But I was just overwhelmingly sure-"
"I would hardly call it illogical, since you proved to be right. Few Vulcans acknowledge the value of intuition, Counselor, but I've found one can't be more than a mediocre therapist without it. Undoubtedly you subconsciously realized the strength of his suicidal tendencies."
"Maybe that was it," Medellin agreed, without sounding very convinced.
"Never mind how you found him," Anderson said. "The question I'm worried about is if you found him in time. What's Li say his chances are?"
Medellin shook her head, the miserable expression creeping across it again. "I don't know. They haven't had time to brief me yet."
"Right." Anderson looked over at Li, trying to see his face. She recognized that look of grim desperation. Q's chances for survival were just barely this side of impossible, if Li's face was to be believed- and Anderson would have staked more than her own life on her ability to read the people under her command, and on Li's diagnostic skills. "Let's wait out here. Dr. T'Laren, assuming he does pull through, what was this plan of yours again?"
"I plan to take him with me. Ketaya is a small prototype vessel with the capacity for extremely high speed; it's not heavily armed, but it's capable of running away from almost anything. We could outrun a Galaxy-class starship as if it were standing still. Q would be almost as safe from external threats aboard Ketaya as he is here. He would also be out of the atmosphere of Starbase 56, which I think is essential as a first step."
"You want to take him on vacation." Medellin managed to produce a tiny smile. "I was just recommending that to him and to Commodore Anderson."
"Not vacation, precisely. I think it would be bad for him to have no work to do."
"But he hates his work."
"More precisely, he hates the sort of people he's been seeing lately in his work. From your own reports, Counselor, it seems obvious that he would take considerably more pleasure in it if he could choose who he saw. There are several places I had thought to take him, if he wished it- the wormhole near Bajor, the singularity near the Abister system, the annual archaeological conference on Chatimore. An opportunity to see the wonders of the galaxy once again, to travel freely and provide his knowledge to beings of his own choosing..."
"You do realize what you're setting yourself up for, though, don't you, Doctor?" Anderson leaned forward slightly. "Even Vulcans aren't immune to him. He just has to work harder to annoy them. I can promise you, though, he'll do it. I've never seen anyone so dedicated to making other people's lives miserable."
"Has it occurred to you that a large part of that is because he is so miserable himself?"
Anderson shook her head. "Have you read the Enterprise reports on him? He's spent millions of years making people miserable. It's got nothing to do with his own state of mind. He just enjoys it."
"I will draw my own conclusions," T'Laren said, with a slight tilt of the head that might have been a Vulcan shrug. "I can assure you that he cannot offend me unless I choose to be offended. I am sufficiently empathic to understand his pain and sufficiently Vulcan not to be vulnerable to his personality. My hope is to teach him how to behave as a social being, so this sort of thing doesn't happen again."
Anderson's combadge bleeped. "Goetz to Commodore Anderson. We've found where he got the etching solution from."
"Personal replicator. It's not properly cross-listed; the computer lists it under recreational art supplies, not dangerous chemicals. He just asked for it. About a week ago."
"Damn." Anderson's fair skin darkened with anger. That was a tremendous oversight on someone's part. Until they had the system suicide-proofed, they couldn't let Q anywhere near a replicator. "We're going to have to restrict him from using the replicators at all except under supervision."
T'Laren frowned slightly. "That wouldn't be wise. Commodore, the problem is that Q is suicidal. Putting him on a suicide watch and protecting him from dangerous objects can only go so far. Sooner or later, he will end his own life, unless we treat the cause and not the symptom."
"Assuming he lives at all. We're all assuming he'll pull through this." Anderson glanced up as a nurse approached. "Did Li send you to report?"
"Yes, Commodore." The nurse was a young man, probably fresh out of the Academy. He looked bone-weary. "The chances aren't very good, I'm afraid. Dr. Li's trying to stabilize his condition long enough for us to replace the damaged organs, but... Q managed to take out most of his intestinal tract with that stuff, and he's badly damaged his windpipe and hurt his lungs. Even if we get all the relevant organs cloned and transplanted in time, the shock might still kill him. Dr. Li said to tell you that frankly, it'll be a miracle if he pulls through."
"Damn," Anderson whispered. Despite Medellin's eagerness to accept blame, she felt personally responsible. Q was a person under her command, dammit. He had come here for protection, and she'd failed him.
Medellin bit her lip. "Commodore, I hereby offer my resignation as base counselor. I've failed in my duty."
"Don't be stupid, Nian. This is my fault as much as it is yours. Sekal warned me last night, and I didn't suggest you talk to him until this morning."
"I would not give up hope," T'Laren said suddenly. "Considering who we're dealing with... I wouldn't consider a miracle to be an impossibility."
She stood up. "I will return to my ship, if that's acceptable, Commodore," she said. "I'd like to be notified if there's any change in Q's condition."
"That's fine." Anderson stood as well. "If Q does survive, Doctor, I'm willing to implement your proposal. You can't possibly do a worse job than we have."
Back aboard Ketaya, T'Laren first checked her ship's status. Maintenance procedures were going smoothly, no cause for alarm. She looked up at the ceiling and spoke to emptiness.
"You would hardly have invested this much in preparing me if I were only to arrive too late," she said. "Am I to assume that a miracle will take place on schedule?"
You take a lot for granted
, a voice in her head said.
What makes you think we're planning to intervene? Maybe we'll just let events take their course.
"I know you, Lhoviri," T'Laren said sharply. "It might not have cost you much effort to save me, not in your terms, but it cost effort nonetheless. You wouldn't have done it if you didn't plan to use me. And as I have not been placed in a position to counsel the dead..."
"Touché." Lhoviri materialized in a burst of light, appearing as a ruddy-faced, blond human male leaning insouciantly against the back wall of Ketaya's bridge. "Let's put it this way. There won't be any obvious miracles. He's going to feel like hell for quite a while- as well he should. That was a stupid stunt if ever he pulled a stupid stunt."
"Did you give a premonition to Counselor Medellin, or was that her native ability?"
Lhoviri grinned. "Hey, I can't tell you all our secrets. You figure it out."
"Did you know he would do this before I could talk to him?"
"It was a possibility," Lhoviri agreed. "There were other possibilities as well that we took into account, but we definitely considered this one pretty plausible. Interesting suicide method he chose- fits in with his flair for melodrama, but I wouldn't have thought he'd be able to face that much pain. Do you have any idea how much it hurts to drink liquid corrosive?"
"Having never done so, I cannot say I do."
"No. You picked a pretty melodramatic method yourself, mind you, but this one's positively grotesque." Lhoviri pushed off from the wall and wandered over to the console. "Looks pretty good. I suspect you'll be able to talk to him in three or four days. He won't be able to talk back too well, not after he destroyed his throat, but then there's millions of beings that would consider that an ideal situation for dealing with him." He flashed another grin at T'Laren. "So. Holding up pretty well under the pressure? Your little talk with Surak still helping?"
"Immensely. Thank you."
"Maybe you'd like to give me a more appropriate name?"
T'Laren looked at him, and deliberately smiled. "I find Lhoviri to be a thoroughly appropriate name for you," she said.
"You still don't trust me."
"I never will. I will serve you until I die, to the best of my ability. But I never will trust you, Lhoviri. The power inequity between us is too great. If I trusted you, I would have to worship you, and you are not the aspect of the All I would choose to honor."
"I like a woman who knows who her gods are," Lhoviri said. "You're right- you shouldn't trust me. I'm about as ruthless a creature as you're likely to meet, and your welfare isn't my top priority. But then, you knew that. And it's not as if you've gotten no benefits from me."
"No," T'Laren said softly. "I didn't say I hadn't. I owe you an incalculable amount."
"You owe me your life," Lhoviri said. "Don't forget it."
"I owe you my sanity," T'Laren said, "and that is a far greater debt. Don't worry, Lhoviri. I will do what you expect of me, as well as I can."
"Hey. That's all I can ask. You're only mortal, after all."
He vanished in another burst of light. T'Laren headed for her quarters aboard Ketaya. There would be some waiting to do.
The dividing line between oblivion and self-awareness was the awareness of pain. It wasn't a great hurt; a tiny twinge, indefinitely located. But before, there had been no sensation at all. He had been blissfully unaware of his own lack of awareness. Now there was both pain and the knowledge of that pain.
He fought to regain oblivion, an action too inherently contradictory to succeed. There was no way to banish the hurt if it would not go away by itself. Thinking about it only made it grow greater. His mind constructed dreams to explain the pain, tormented recursive structures of nonsense. In the dreams, he was tortured by the inescapable conclusion the pangs brought: he was not dead. There were many forms of death, but none of them involved pain. So he was not dead. He had failed.
Before long, the dreams themselves became a torment, and he started to struggle against them, to fight his way to wakefulness. If he couldn't be dead, he would rather be awake. It was difficult; he kept dreaming that he was awake, and each attempt to force himself to wakefulness seemed to bring him into another level of the dream. Gradually, however, he became distantly aware of voices outside the dream, voices outside himself.
"He's coming around, doctor. Should I increase sedative levels?"
"No. He'll heal faster if we're not depressing his system with sedatives. Stand by with 10 cc's of allocaine."
Suddenly the pain hit full force. It was like a savage animal tearing at his insides, ripping open his lungs, his throat, his belly. Q's eyes snapped open as sudden agony brought him to full consciousness. He gasped, bringing more suffering down on himself. His lungs were on fire and there was a wild animal chewing on the inside of his stomach, and every whimper he made worsened the sensations.
"I was afraid of this. Give him the allocaine."
A hypo pressed against the side of his neck. Almost instantly the pain started to subside. Being able to breathe without agony was almost a pleasure in itself. His vision cleared, and he registered the presence of two people by his bed: a young blonde woman with a hypo in her hand and ensign's pips, and a slim, scowling Asian man with graying hair. The man was Brian Li, Chief Medical Officer of Starbase 56; presumably the woman was a random nurse.
"Don't try to talk," Li said.
Q opened his mouth to ask "why not?" Before he could fully form the "why" part, he found out why not- the pain returned, clawing at the inside of his throat. Instinctively he tried to put his hands to his throat, but his arms felt like leaden weights and wouldn't move properly. This time, at least, the pain faded rapidly.
Li sighed. "I tried to warn you," he said. "Maybe you'll listen to me this time. You're lucky to be alive. If Counselor Medellin hadn't gotten to you so soon, there'd have been no way we could save you. As it is, you managed to destroy your throat and most of your respiratory and alimentary systems. We've implanted cloned replacement tissue, but until it all heals together the nerves are going to be very touchy. Now we can give you medication for the chronic pain, so you can breathe normally without hurting. But if you try to talk you're going to be in agony. As I think you just found out." He shook his head. "This habit of doing whatever people tell you not to do is going to get you killed one of these days."
Q stared at Li in horror. He couldn't talk? For how long? How could he stay sane without being able to talk? He had chosen this particular method of suicide because he didn't think there was any chance of surviving it. If he had thought there was the slightest chance that he would live, and be rendered mute, he would never have done it. He tried to lift his arm again, desperately needing to know how long he was going to be like this and racking his brain for some way he could express the question in hand signals. But the point was moot- he was too weak to lift his arm anyway.
"How long?" he mouthed, careful not to actually speak.
Li paid no attention. He turned his back on Q and started walking away.
Violent, helpless frustration overwhelmed Q. Li was doing this deliberately. Even if Q mustered up the strength to call out, his voice would be too weak to carry, and Li still probably wouldn't hear him- which was probably exactly what Li wanted. Li wanted to be able to ignore Q completely, to do the minimum required to save Q's life and no more.
Q raised his head slightly, trying to see his surroundings. He was, obviously, in sickbay, lying on a diagnostic bed with the diagnostic unit still lowered over his midsection. The unit extended from just below his armpits to just above his knees. He could feel nothing where it touched him; it was as if his body simply stopped where it began, and resumed where it left off. From his arms and the section of chest exposed, he could see that he was wearing some kind of pastel blue pajamas. They weren't a bad color. He nodded slightly, approving of them, and then smiled in self-mockery at his own vanity. Obviously ugly pajamas would be a fate worse than death, he thought, bitterly amused at himself.
Li returned with two nurses and a good bit of electronic equipment on an antigrav cart. "I want you to know," Li said without preamble, "that I disapproved of this. I don't think coddling you is a good idea at all. But Counselor Medellin was adamant that you have something to entertain yourself with, since you're going to be confined to bed for at least a week."
A week. Only a week. He could survive a week in bed. But a week in bed without being able to talk? Q watched with mingled fascination and frustration as the two nurses set up a computer terminal within easy sight range. How was he supposed to use a terminal if he couldn't talk?
Li lifted Q's right hand and put something underneath it- a pad with a rolling sphere imbedded. "This is a tracball. It's used to control computers for patients who can't talk and can't type. You should be able to move your hand enough to use it- it wasn't your hand you damaged. Try rolling the ball with your fingertips." Q did so. On the terminal's screen, a little pointer moved as he guided it. Now he recognized the technology. Astonishing. Technology from the dawn of the computer age. How quaint.
One of the nurses laid a smooth, skin-tight strip of what felt like tape across Q's throat. It itched slightly. "You can summon a nurse or me with the computer, or with a button on the left side of your bed," Li said. "And the device Nurse Wrigley's just put on your throat is a subvocalizer." Li placed a small flat box-like object on top of the computer, well out of Q's reach, and tapped it. "It'll pick up your subvocalizations, transmit them to the computer, and feed them out through this speaker, so you can talk in an emergency. Try it. Subvocalize something."
"Is it my own voice?" Q asked, and was gratified to hear that it was- somewhat flat and lacking in affect, but his own voice nonetheless. It was mildly unnerving to hear it coming from a source some distance away from his head- for three years, his voice had come exclusively from his throat, and he'd gotten used to the arrangement. It was also strange to hear his voice as it actually was heard to other humans, without the factor of bone conduction interfering, for the first time in three years. The subvocalization itself brought a tiny twinge of pain- bearable, for the sake of being able to talk, though. "Wonderful. I thought I was going to have to go through the next several days completely mute."
"You are," Li said, and tapped the speaker, turning it off. Once more deprived of speech, Q could only stare in disbelief and fury. "This is for emergencies only. You could still damage your throat using it on a regular basis, and I don't trust you not to abuse it. The speaker stays off unless it's vitally necessary."
As Li turned away, Q tried to sit up, to reach the speaker. He hadn't anywhere near the strength, and besides, the diagnostic bed would have gotten in his way. Immediately he reached over and pressed a button to summon a nurse.
Li himself turned around and flicked on the speaker. "What is it?"
"I want the speaker left on," Q demanded.
"Too bad." Li flicked the speaker off again. "I'm not coddling you, Q. I'm tired of seeing you in here for suicide attempts. Maybe next time you decide to kill yourself, you'll remember how unpleasant it was recuperating and rethink your decision."
And maybe next time I'll just make sure no one rescues me until it's too late
, Q thought. Li turned and walked off again.
Morosely Q turned his attention to the computer. Annoyingly cute little icons sat on the screen, describing the various functions and programs he could access. He flipped through the library, decided there wasn't anything he wanted to read, and then hit on an idea. The music library was accessible from here as well. He routed the speaker pathway to the main computer speakers throughout sickbay, called up Also Sprach Zarathustra from the music library, upped the max decibel level to close to the limits and lay back, smirking. The first three bars were relatively quiet. Across the room he saw Li turn his head, with a "what the hell?" expression on his face. Then the first crashing chord hit, at a sound level that was almost painful. The entire medical staff jumped, shrieked, or staggered.
"Computer!" Li screamed. "Turn off that noise!"
The music shut off. Li stormed over to Q, who grinned insolently. No appreciation for the classics. Shame, shame, Doctor. "What did you think you were doing?" Li snarled. "There are sick people in here!"
Q jerked his head toward the speaker. Li shook his head. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm not falling for it. I don't care what your explanation is." He took the tracball and jerked it out from under Q's hand, setting it on top of the terminal next to the speaker. "Your computer access is revoked until you can behave like a civilized being."
It hadn't occurred to Q that Li would do a thing like this. Without computer access, he was doomed to crashing boredom, and when he was bored it was far too easy to think about how depressed he was. He couldn't even protest. For a fleeting spiteful second he thought of talking anyway, forcing his voice to work despite the pain, and hopefully ruining as much of Li's work as he could. But it was immediately obvious that it would hurt him far more than Li, and while Q was perfectly capable of cutting off his nose to spite his face, he was also very bad at dealing with extreme pain. His protest would fall on deaf ears anyway.
As Li left again, he stared at the computer in despair. Without the hand-held device, it was simply a boring screen with icons on it, hardly more than a few seconds of visual stimulation. He pressed the button for the nurse. No one came, so he pressed it several more times, and finally leaned on it for half a minute before a nurse finally came over to him. She flicked on the speaker. "Yes?"
"I'm hungry, I'm bored and I want my computer back. I promise to be good."
"You're not hungry- the diagnostic unit is feeding you intravenously. I'm sure you are bored, but there's nothing I can do about that. Dr. Li says you're not to get the computer control back until tomorrow morning." She switched off the speaker before he could say anything else. He pressed the call button. Exasperated, she put the speaker back on. "What now?"
"I want to see Commodore Anderson."
"The Commodore's asleep."
"Asleep? What time is it?"
"Then I want a sedative."
"You've been under sedation for three days. Dr. Li doesn't want you given any more for at least another day."
"But my throat hurts."
"That's because you're talking." She switched off his speaker again. "Now your throat won't hurt."
Q pressed the call button again. The nurse reached down, pulled a restraint out of the bed, and pushed his left hand into it, so he couldn't reach the call button. "You've just cried wolf once too often," she said firmly. "In an hour, I'll take you out of that restraint. You'd better not have a genuine emergency before then, because come hell or high water I'm not answering that call button, not even if you manage to wriggle free and use it. The diagnostic unit ought to take care of any biological needs, so there's no reason you should need me for an hour or so. Maybe you might want to think about the cost of abusing your privileges."
In disbelief, Q watched her go. These were medical personnel? How could they call themselves healers, when they abused their patients like this? He tried to move his trapped hand, but in his weakened condition he had no hope of escaping the restraint, not that he'd have much hope even in good condition. He still had one hand free, but there wasn't anything he could do with it- he was too weak to move it much, and there was nowhere to move it to. He couldn't sit up, turn over or even lift his head much, there was nothing to look at and nothing to do- he couldn't even sleep, for fear of the nightmares' return. And weak as he was, he wasn't particularly sleepy anyway.
It was going to be a very long night.
Early in the morning Anderson came to see him. He had been half-asleep, drifting, fighting to avoid both the boredom of full wakefulness and the nightmares attendant on full sleep. It had been less than successful; he had suffered from strange and disturbing dreams all night. The footsteps near his bed alerted him that someone was there, someone who might well give him back his computer or his voice. He opened his eyes, and saw Anderson towering over his bed. With the light at her back brightening her short fair hair and transforming it into a halo, she looked oddly like a mourning angel, her face somber as she looked down at him.
She shook her head slowly. "I came down here with every intention of chewing you out for this stunt," she said quietly. "But it occurs to me that if you're desperate enough that you needed to do this, nothing I could say would make much of a difference."
It would make a great deal of difference if you turned on my speaker
, Q thought at her. Anderson, neither telepathic, empathic nor overly sensitive in the mundane sense, made no move toward the speaker. "I'm sorry it got this bad," she said. "God knows you're not my favorite person, but you don't deserve... this." She gestured, taking in the bed, the diagnostic unit, the entire situation. "I can't even imagine the kind of pressure that makes drinking acid seem like a good idea."
Q stared up at her sullenly. He didn't want her sympathy. He wanted his voice back. Can you imagine what it's like to be mute, Eleanor?
"In any case. There's someone to see you, a Vulcan named T'Laren. Obviously I'm in no position to force you to talk to her, but I would appreciate it. I'm going to talk to Dr. Li, and get him to agree to turn your voicebox back on so you can talk to Dr. T'Laren, if you choose. You can move your head for yes or no."
In order to get his voice back, Q would have talked to anyone. He nodded vigorously. Anderson smiled slightly. "Thanks," she said. "I don't think you'll regret it."
She turned and left. Q watched her go for a few moments, and then resumed staring at the ceiling, feeling furious and resentful. Thus they sucked him back into their web. As badly as he wanted to die, as little as he cared about anything anymore, he still feared boredom and helplessness, and like any human, he could be controlled with what he feared. He hated that about himself. He had tried, time after time, to muster up the courage to tell Anderson to go to hell and take her damned scientists with her. In fact, he had told her so, several times. But he could never stick to his guns. In the end, he always gave in. Even now, when he lay apathetic and near death in a sickbay bed, Anderson could make demands of him, and he had to give in.
Well, he'd make this T'Laren pay for it. If she was enough of a vulture that she would come interrogate a man on his deathbed, she deserved the worst he could do. She was a Vulcan, so it would take some work to find her weak points- but even Vulcans had them, and when you put the right kind of pressure on Vulcans' weak points they cracked completely. He would test her limits, see quite how controlled she really was. Q smiled, a thin, vicious expression. He hadn't spent thousands of years testing people for nothing.
A slight commotion drew his attention. Painfully he lifted his head enough to look over at the other end of sickbay. Anderson, Li, and a slender, curly-haired woman were making their way over toward him, arguing. The woman looked short next to Anderson, but then so did everyone except Q himself; she was actually about Li's height. Li was talking.
"...solution is not to coddle him," he was saying. "He doesn't need to be able to talk yet, and he's risking permanent damage to his vocal cords."
"Doctor." It was the curly-haired woman. "Permanent damage to his vocal cords is something of an irrelevant fear if he kills himself in the next month. And in what sense is this 'coddling' him?"
"I mean you're coddling him. Your insistence on giving him the computer interface back, even though he's abused it; you want him free to talk for half an hour or more, despite the damage it might cause... This is a man who has put himself in sickbay for self-inflicted injuries three times so far. I don't see any good coming of making sure he's entertained while he's here, at the expense of his health and the well-being of other patients!"
"Do you honestly believe that Q will refrain from attempting his own life again simply because sickbay bores him?" the woman asked. Q studied her with interest, trying to place her accent. She wasn't wearing a Starfleet uniform, and her voice was precise enough, her coloring swarthy enough, that she could be the Vulcan he'd been told to expect- except that she had curly hair and a Texas accent. He couldn't see the ears under the hair. "Perhaps you believe that he's merely trying to get attention?"
"Well, it's worked every time, hasn't it?" Li said sharply. "Every time he tries to kill himself, he comes here, gets fussed over and babied- that's certainly incentive."
Q fumed at the blatant untruth in that statement. The last time he'd ended up here, the last thing he'd gotten was sympathy. He wished desperately for a voice to protest the unfairness. In the next moment, the woman voiced his protest for him, saying, "Do you truly believe that he would have drunk a bottle of etching solution to get attention? When his survival depended on such an improbable chain of circumstance that it's frankly unbelievable he lived? When a person attempts suicide as a cry for help, they don't drink acid."
"No. They cut their wrists or overdose on pills."
"Q's previous suicide attempts have no bearing on this one. Are you this insensitive to all your patients, Doctor? Or is it just that you despise Q so much, you can't see the truth?"
Q's eyes widened. Whoever she was, she was good. If she was T'Laren, she'd just earned a conversation on whatever topic she wanted. Probably she was only defending him for the sake of his intellectual value, but he appreciated it nonetheless- and appreciated the skill and viciousness of her defense as well. He lived for challenging verbal combats. This woman could be a worthy opponent.
Anderson shook her head. "That was uncalled-for, T'Laren."
"I'm sorry if I sound cruel, but I think Dr. Li is failing to understand. Q is desperately, mortally ill. His illness is psychological, not physical, but it's no less dangerous than Phaedian viral leukemia or Mistarin blood fever. You have taken a man dying of ennui and despair, locked him away from all human contact for the sake of protecting his voice, and deprived him of anything to take his mind out of its destructive inward focus. If a man with a broken leg lies in the path of a moving vehicle, it may well damage his leg to crawl out of range, but what would that matter if the vehicle crushed him? I want to be absolutely certain that Dr. Li is truly acting out of the best interests of his patient, in refusing me permission to speak to Q, and not subconsciously acting on his dislike for Q."
"For a Vulcan, you play dirty pool, Doctor," Li said angrily. "Actually, that's dirty pool for a human. Or anyone."
"If my words hurt you, I apologize. But consider that words rarely cause pain if there's no grain of truth to them."
"Fine. You can talk to Q. What concern is it of mine if he destroys his voice permanently? I'm just his doctor." Li took a deep breath. "Keep it under half an hour a day if you can. He can't be trusted with his own well-being- he lives in the present, no concern for future consequences at all. And if you think there's any hope at all of him surviving the next few years, I would like to suggest that he might want to use the nerves in his throat sometime in the future, and that you are responsible for making sure he doesn't permanently damage them now." He stalked off. Q grinned.
Anderson looked over at Q, and back at T'Laren. "Did you need to do that in front of him?" she asked quietly, jerking a thumb at Q.
"Dr. Li will understand, once he's had some time to calm down," T'Laren said. "He would be considerably more vitriolic in defense of a patient, were the situation reversed. I truly didn't intend to hurt him... but Q's well-being takes precedence over his hurt feelings. I can try to smooth it over with him later..."
"That ought to be fine. He doesn't hold grudges," Anderson said. "Which is probably why he doesn't have the ulcers I do. I do hold grudges, Doctor. I understand your reasoning here... but don't pull a stunt like this with me, understand?"
"I have no intention of doing so, Commodore. You wouldn't respond to such tactics, and they aren't necessary with you."
"Good. In that case, I'll leave you to it." Anderson left.
T'Laren approached the bed, tapping the speaker to turn it on. Up close, Q could see the ears. "Oh, very good," he said, as soon as the speaker was on. "Consider yourself applauded. I'm impressed."
"I'm glad you think so."
"I was prepared to tear you apart for being such an incredible vulture. But after a performance like that... you've earned whatever information you want. Ask, and ye shall receive. I just want to ask you something first."
"What is a Vulcan doing with a Texas accent?"
"I grew up on Earth. Mostly in Texas, to be exact."
"Really. Ever consider changing your name to T'Ex?"
T'Laren let a beat pass, studying him. Finally she said, "I'd been informed you have a remarkable wit. I must assume it's your injury responsible for that one, then, or else I've been misinformed."
She was good. "What would a Vulcan know about wit?"
"Apparently more than a million-year-old entity knows of tact."
Q shrugged weakly. "If one would be a vulture, one cannot complain about the smell of the carrion."
T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Vulture?"
"A carrion-eating bird, on Earth-"
"I know what a vulture is. I was wondering what bearing the analogy has on me. You've called me a vulture twice, and I'm not sure I understand your reasoning."
"You must not be all that bright, then. I'd think it would be obvious. You needed whatever scientific or historical information or whatever you came for now? You couldn't wait until I was off my deathbed?"
"A deathbed's where you go to die, not where you recuperate from dying. And you are missing the obvious."
"I suppose that being that I'll try it again when I get out, and so you need to get what you can out of me now? That's certainly logical, but then so's eating carrion."
"I'm not here to pry information out of a dying man, Q. I'm here to try to prevent you from dying. Anderson didn't tell you what I am?"
"She said you were a Vulcan. That much appears to be correct."
"I'm a psychologist. I'm here to help you."
Abruptly her attack on Li made a lot more sense. Q frowned. "Then why do they keep calling you Doctor and not Counselor?"
"Because I'm not Starfleet. Counselor's a Starfleet designation."
"How long was I unconscious?"
"Four days or so; why?"
"It seems like they sent you remarkably quickly."
"Remarkably indeed, considering that I got here the day you did it," T'Laren agreed. "It's been suspected for some time that you might do something like this. I was hired and sent here on the assumption that you were planning to kill yourself, though I certainly didn't expect you to try it a few minutes after I arrived."
"It was suspected by whom?"
"Starfleet's very worried about you, Q. Counselor Medellin's a good woman, a talented counselor, but she's become too personally involved to do much good."
Or in other words, she was incapable of counseling him properly because she despised him. "So they sent you, as a theoretically objective person." He frowned. "How good could a Vulcan psychiatrist possibly be? I wouldn't imagine you'd be much on empathy."
"Few Vulcans were raised on Earth. I understand humans better than I understand my own kind, sometimes. Besides, true mastery of emotions isn't possible without thoroughly understanding them; don't let any Vulcan tell you differently. My field is actually xenopsychology; I've specialized in human, but I've treated Betazoids, Andorians, Thurali, I have experience with Romulan culture, I've met numerous aliens, including one or two near-omnipotent entities... I think it's a reasonably good bet that I can figure you out."
"Why'd Starfleet send a civilian psychologist?"
"I used to be Starfleet. In addition, there are certain obvious advantages to using a Vulcan for this."
"What? That whole nonsense about you being too logical to take offense? I assure you, Vulcans are some of the easiest races to provoke in the entire galaxy. All you need to do is imply that they have emotions, and they'll furiously deny it. Which is something of a self-defeating proposition, don't you think?"
"Certainly. But why is it so important to you to be able to provoke people?"
Q shrugged again. "I'm obnoxious and disliked, you know that's so."
"You're avoiding the question. Your obnoxiousness is a result of your desire to provoke, not the cause of it. Why do you consider provoking people a priority?"
"It entertains me. And my life is so unutterably tedious, I need all the entertainment I can get. Truly unflappable people are truly boring."
"I'm surprised you find human existence so boring. I would think there'd be far more opportunity to become jaded as an immortal being who nothing can harm."
"Ah yes. I've read numerous stories about humans becoming immortal and growing bored with their lives. I think it's something you mortals desperately want to believe, to justify your deaths. But the sad fact is, mortality is much more tedious. And when it's not tedious, it's downright unpleasant. There was so much more to see when I was omnipotent, so much more to do..."
"Wouldn't omniscience entail boredom?"
"Omniscience is not an exact term. In the case of the Q, it's more that we can find anything out if we want to. Even then, study and personal involvement can amplify what we learn- rather like the difference between reading a summary of a book and reading the book oneself. It's a big universe. I could have gone for millions more years simply in this matter-based universe without growing bored."
"There are things to do and see and learn as a mortal as well. You simply haven't done any of them. For three years you've stayed on a single starbase, traveling nowhere, experiencing very little of what mortal life has to offer. One would almost think you deliberately resist trying anything that might make you happy."
"Why would I do that? Not only is it counter-productive, it's hardly necessary. Nothing could make me happy."
Now she was beginning to sound like Medellin. Medellin with a harder, colder edge to her voice and a faint Texas accent. "You mortals persist in believing that I've lost something extra. Some addition, that I can easily do without. After all, you think, you've lived all your lives without being omnipotent, so why can't I? It isn't like that. My senses once covered the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the psionic bandwidths, the macroscopic and microscopic scales, gravitons, quanta, time itself- at least the past- the infinite resources of the universe, and now? I am limited to five very narrow senses, only one of which I can shut off at will. I feel pain, when I never did before. I can feel my physical body decaying around me. I can operate on the world around me only with two very blunt instruments, where before I had only to think a thing and it was done. Can you understand? Mortality is normal for you. It's crippling for me. There is no equivalent analogy. A human can't lose as much as I have even by dying. A human in a persistent vegetative state is closer to what he used to be than I am. And you ask me why I'm unhappy? How could I be expected to be happy?"
"And so you've decided to end this unhappiness by killing yourself."
T'Laren turned away, pacing. "Pathetic," she said.
Q's eyes narrowed. "'Pathetic?'"
"Your Continuum told you that if you helped them collect information on humanity by becoming human, they might eventually reinstate you. Am I correct?"
"They never meant that," Q snarled. "I haven't heard from them in three years. If they haven't given me any feedback in that long-"
"In how long?" T'Laren asked sharply, turning back to face him. "Three years is nothing to the Q Continuum. You should know that far better than I. It shows how far your judgement is compromised by your depression that you would think such a thing. Eighty years would be nothing. They could wait an entire human lifetime and take you back on your deathbed."
"I can't live like this for eighty more years!"
"Yes. That is what's pathetic. Q, I am mortal. I long ago came to terms with the knowledge that I would die, like all mortals. I don't know if I would even want to be immortal. But if I wanted it, and I believed that suffering eighty years of pain would give me a good chance at becoming a goddess, or even an undying being- and if the alternative was not a life of happiness, but an early, pointless death- I would choose the pain. Almost any mortal would. Obviously you Q are not so advanced as you think you are, if bearing pain is so impossible for you that you can't hold on a mere eighty years."
The words struck a painful nerve. Q's eyes went hard and flinty, masking the pain. "Don't try to shame me into staying alive, T'Laren," he said. "I know I'm a coward. It's one of the reasons I'd rather be dead."
"So you do feel shame at your own weakness."
"I feel shame at all my weaknesses. But I know them, and they're immutable. I can't change who I am. And don't judge the entire Continuum on the basis of me. There's a reason they threw me out, you know."
"Do you know that your weaknesses are immutable? Have you tried to change them?"
"I've tried. I've tried so hard, you can't imagine what it costs to try to break the habits of several million years but I've tried. And this is as far as I've gotten. Besides, things are only going to get worse. Already I look like hell. I was reasonably good-looking when I first took this body, as humans go- at least I considered this form attractive, it's why I picked it. In three years, I've seen it begin to decay. I'm far too thin, I have lines on my face, I'm losing my hair. I ache constantly, and when I complain about it Li tells me to stop whining, all humans have little aches and pains. These don't feel little. If these are little aches and pains, I don't want to be around when the serious pain starts. All things considered, I'd just rather be dead."
"But it's hardly any wonder that your health is so poor, when you've abused it so," T'Laren said. "You eat like a child- you live on chocolate, bread and pasta. If your nutritionist hadn't programmed the base replicators to automatically place dietary supplements in your meals, you'd have come down with a deficiency disease or two a year ago. You take a sedative to sleep almost every single night, and then consume seven or eight cups of caffeinated coffee in the course of the next day. You have resisted several offers to participate in some sort of physical exercise program. You have even resisted opportunities to learn self-defense, something that a man in your position should learn. In your time on Starbase 56 you've been stabbed, shot, poisoned, attacked by a swarm of stinging insects, beaten more than once, and then there are your two previous suicide attempts. Were it not for the miracles of modern medicine, you would be in far worse shape- even a hundred years ago, you'd have come down with several illnesses by now. Your poor health is not the cause of your death wish, Q. I would rather say the converse is true."
Q shrugged. "I hate the demands this body makes on me. I've been engaged in a cold war with it for three years. Recently I escalated it into a hot war... but my body's got meddlers like Li and Medellin on its side. It still won."
"You can't win a war with your own body, Q."
"It's not my own body. It belongs to a man a century dead. I copied it without his permission; that doesn't make it mine."
T'Laren paused for a second, as if choosing her next tactic. "What was the reason for your two previous suicide attempts?"
Q laughed bitterly for a moment, until the pain hit. He had forgotten how much it hurt to laugh. For several seconds he lay gasping, trying to regain his equilibrium. The pain subsided, and he contented himself with a bitter smile. "Didn't you talk to Li? He can tell you all about it."
"He told me it was an attempt to get attention."
"You would know better than I. I'm inclined to believe that they were serious attempts, however, and you just didn't understand the mechanics of suicide well enough to do it efficiently."
"Really." She was the first person Q had met who had made that guess, and he wasn't sure how comfortable he was with that. There was a kind of safety in being perpetually misunderstood. "So if you know so much about it, why don't you tell me why I did it."
"Very well." She walked over to the bed and sat down beside it, gazing at him evenly as she spoke. "You are consumed by an overwhelming guilt and self-hatred. You hide this from those around you with great success, possibly even from yourself most of the time. Perhaps you manage to convince your conscious mind that the blame for what's happened to you all belongs to others. But inside you know that you brought this on yourself. You find this existence unbearable, and you believe that the Continuum would not have so punished you if it were not justified. Thus, you hate yourself for bringing yourself to this pass. You believe that you are fundamentally superior to all mortals, and experience nausea and revulsion at the demands of mortal life, frequently. But you see that mortals are much better than you are at interacting with other mortals, and you see it as a failing in you personally, not a flaw in the Q as a whole. You compare yourself to other Q, as well as to mortals, and find yourself wanting. You also want desperately to make social contact with mortals, since that's the only social contact possible to you now. But because you feel yourself superior to mortals, you refuse to 'lower' yourself to their level, and refuse to show your own emotional needs, or try to fill theirs. As a result, they hate you. You exacerbate the situation because negative attention is still attention, but it's a poisonous kind of attention and it only magnifies your own self-hate. You have been self-destructing since you became mortal. Possibly since before that, as it seems strange to me that such an ancient and knowledgeable entity as yourself would do something as foolish as anger the beings who provide his power, but I'm not qualified to talk about that. In any case, it seems obvious that you have been subconsciously self-destructive your entire mortal life, and that occasionally your death wish becomes powerful enough to break into your conscious mind, causing a suicide attempt."
Q stared at her in shock. What she said was nonsense. Complete arrant nonsense. He had no need to have mortal friends, his bad health was not the result of a desire to self-destruct, and he didn't hate himself. It was ridiculous to imagine. He didn't- He-
He swallowed hard, against a sudden inexplicable desire to weep. Part of him recognized that description, resonated to it, and why did he feel as if part of him was surging to the surface, desperate to be recognized, when the whole thing was so ridiculous? It hurt to swallow. Dry-mouthed, he summoned as much sarcasm as he could and said, "And what if I told you you're totally wrong? That I did it for attention?"
"Then I'll give you another scenario," she said. "In the first place, it's belittling to say you did it for attention. Though the description may be accurate, the connotations of the statement are completely wrong. No one ever attempts suicide simply because they'd like a bigger share of the limelight. Some fundamental need in you was not being filled. You may have tried to express this need in some other fashion for a while before the attempt, but eventually it came to the point where the only way you could ask for what you needed was to risk your life. Obviously the need was desperate enough that you considered the risk justified. Just as obviously, no one listened. You called for help the only way you knew how, and when you were ignored twice, you despaired of ever getting what you needed. So you became genuinely suicidal, feeling your life unbearable with this need unfulfilled, and tried a much more drastic suicide method in hopes of seriously ending your life." She leaned forward. "Which scenario is it, Q? Or is it both?"
Q shook his head. "You paint very pretty word-pictures, T'Laren," he said. "I'd love to have you as my advocate anytime- you could melt a stone's heart with stories like that. But that doesn't make them true."
"Perhaps you'd like to give me a different explanation, then?"
"Suppose your second scenario were true. What is this putative lack I have that's strong enough to kill me?"
"On a guess, I'd say some kind of positive social contact. As much as you try to hide it, you have the same social needs any human does."
"That's ridiculous. You think I want to kill myself because no one likes me? I have a little bit more strength of will than that."
"We're not talking about your strength of will. I have no doubt that you could do anything you truly wanted to do. The need we're discussing affects what you want, not what you're able to do about what you want. The emotional climate on Starbase 56 is killing you by inches, Q. If you're to have any hope of recovering, you need to leave the starbase."
"It isn't the emotional climate here that's killing me! I could be surrounded by smiling happy people who positively adore me, and it wouldn't change anything! Mortality itself is killing me!"
"That's a tautology. Obviously mortality is killing you. Mortality kills all of us."
"That's not what I meant- don't play word-games with me, woman, I've been doing it longer than your species has existed. I don't think the knowledge that I'll die is what's destroying me- after all, obviously it's possible for the Q to die, or I couldn't be in this position, could I? I always knew I had the potential to be dead, and it never bothered me before. No, as I said before, I am crippled, deaf, blind, and retarded. I'm sure living among people who dislike me exacerbates the situation, but there's nothing I can do about that. No matter where I go, what I do, people will dislike me. And their dislike is not the root cause of my desire to be dead. The fact that I am incapable of doing any of the things I might want to do is killing me. My life is utterly pointless and I don't see it going anywhere but downhill. I just want oblivion."
T'Laren shook her head. "Except for one brief week aboard the Enterprise, you've spent your entire mortal life on Starbase 56. You have no objectivity. You can't say that you would be no happier off the base, since you have no basis for comparison. And the fact that you so resist the notion that leaving might help you indicates to me that you don't truly want to be happy. You want to wallow in your misery and die of it."
"How can you say that?" Q was furious. His throat ached fiercely, both from the amount of talking he'd done and from the effort it took to keep his speech subvocalized, not to shout at her. "I tried! I fought this for three years!"
"If you truly wanted help, you'd grasp at anything that might offer hope, however small."
"There speaks someone who's never been in my position. Do you know how much it hurts to hope, and struggle for something, and find out all your hopes are a fool's dream, a mirage that evaporates and leaves you with less than nothing?"
"Yes. I do."
"How can you? You're a Vulcan! Intellectual understanding of an emotion isn't understanding at all!"
"I tried to kill myself two years ago."
That brought him up short. Q stared. A Vulcan, attempting suicide? "Why?"
"It isn't important, why... I hated myself, and I hated my life, and I was being devoured by guilt for certain acts I'd committed... and the only logical solution to my pain seemed to be death. I was offered rehabilitation, healing, constructive methods of handling my grief. I refused them. I hated myself, believed I deserved my suffering, and would not part with it." She was silent for a moment, staring down at her clasped hands.
"I don't hate myself, T'Laren. I hate this shell I'm trapped in. There's a difference."
"Perhaps I'm projecting myself onto you a bit," she said. "But there is no logical reason for you not to try something, anything. Even if you don't think it will work. After all, you can always kill yourself afterward, if the solution failed. If you kill yourself first, you're throwing away any hope that you could ever live and be happy."
"Humans aren't logical creatures."
"I'm well aware of that. But their illogic follows patterns. If you refuse to even try letting yourself be helped, there must be a powerful if illogical reason. And self-hate is the only reason I can think of that would be that strong."
Q sighed. "I can't leave Starbase 56. I made a deal with Starfleet; they'd never let me go. Besides, how would I survive? I've got enemies out there, you know. That's why I'm here."
"What I'm suggesting is that you come with me. Ketaya is a small, prototype vessel; it's not so well-armed, but its shields are magnificent, and it can go faster than anything the Federation has. For that matter, faster than anything the Borg had. It's mostly automated; one person can run it, though for safety's sake it'd be best to have two. I'm the only crew it currently has. We could go anywhere you want; you won't have to deal with anyone besides me on a regular basis, and we can outrun anything that Starbase 56 could conceivably protect you against."
"That doesn't sound very safe."
"Why do you care? You want to die, don't you?"
Q frowned. Why did he care? "It's different," he said. "If I kill myself, that's my decision. If I let someone else do it, that's also my decision. But if someone just comes in and kills me- You know some of these aliens have absolutely horrible execution methods."
"Worse than swallowing acid?"
"Much worse. I admit that hurt quite a bit, but it was over very quickly. If it wasn't for Medellin and Li rescuing me, I'd hardly have suffered at all. I don't want pain, you understand. I'm not a masochist. I'm trying to escape pain."
"Starbase 56 hasn't proven to be the safest of places, either," T'Laren said. "I've studied the files. How would something like- say, the Maierlen assassin and his swarm of insects- get aboard a starship with only two crew members? Our shields are proof against anyone's transporter technology. Besides, right now I think the far greater danger to you is yourself. If you could leave the base, get back out into the galaxy, go where you wanted, and if that proved to be what you need to want to live again, you would be in considerably less danger than you are here, despite the manpower and resources dedicating to protecting you."
By now his throat hurt an amazingly great deal, and he was beginning to feel exhausted. "Why would Anderson let you take me?" he asked. "Or is she trying to get rid of me?"
"She'd hardly try to get rid of you, Q. As annoying to her as you are personally, you as a commodity are the reason for Starbase 56's importance. Without you, this base is a nondescript backwater starbase, just like a hundred others, and the crew she's recruited won't stay in such a place. If you left permanently, most of the crew of 56 would transfer elsewhere. Anderson herself would probably leave. But she knows that the Federation won't get any more use out of you as you are now... and Commodore Anderson is basically a compassionate woman. For all the conflicts you two have had, she doesn't want to see you suffering like this. She's given me permission to take you, if you're willing, because she knows you can't stay here."
That covered all the holes in her argument he could think of. Undoubtedly there were more, but he was too tired and weak to find them. It did seem that what she offered was his only hope, that if he resisted he was only proving her point that he hated himself, but he was too well-trained in debate and browbeating to give in to anything when he was so tired. "I'll think about it," he said. "I need to rest."
"All right," T'Laren said. "I'll be back tomorrow."
She flicked off his speaker and left. Q closed his eyes and drifted back into half-sleep.
As she left sickbay, T'Laren consciously performed the disciplines to calm herself down. She had maintained complete outward control in the conversation with Q, and had not allowed herself to become sidetracked or misdirected. Inside, however, she was experiencing the descent from an adrenaline rush, something that should not have happened. Q was probably the most verbally skilled of all her patients, and demanded similar skill of his conversational opponents if he was to respect them. A single misstep, and she could have lost him. The conversation had been exhilarating, and a little bit frightening, and she had been too busy concentrating on winning to notice her internal control slipping.
It should not be this way. It should be instinct, second nature. I shouldn't have to work so hard for internal control all the time.
External control was instinct. She showed exactly what she wanted to show, whether it was falsified emotion, a Vulcan mask, or her true inner feelings. But internal control had always eluded her. Even now, when she was better at it than she'd ever been before in her life, she still didn't feel truly Vulcan.
Enough. The problem wouldn't go away if she ignored it; but as there was nothing she could do about it now, and Q was higher priority, she could not afford to pay attention to it. As she headed for Anderson's office, she concentrated entirely on the task at hand. In order to keep beating Q at his own game, she needed to know more about him, from as many perspectives as possible.
"Well, certainly." Anderson leaned forward across the desk. "I'm not the only one you should talk to, if you want people's input on Q, though. Did you talk to Counselor Medellin?"
"I've spent the last three days doing that, while I waited for him to wake up," T'Laren said. "Counselor Medellin's a very insightful woman. The things she told me proved invaluable in my interview with Q today. But I need as many perspectives as possible. I'd like to talk to you and to as many members of the Science Department as I can, since they have frequent dealings with him."
"That's fine. How did your talk with him today go?"
"Quite well, I think." T'Laren allowed the faintest hint of a smile to cross her face- not a full smile, since people were disturbed by the sight of a smiling Vulcan, but enough to subliminally reassure. "At least, as well as any talk with Q can go. I'm beginning to get the shape of what I'm up against."
Anderson grinned. "Don't say I didn't warn you." She leaned back again. "What would you like to talk about?"
"I'd like to begin with an incident I've wondered about," T'Laren said, steepling her fingers. "In the records, it states that a monitor was placed in Q's quarters after his second suicide attempt, and that it was removed after he went on a hunger strike to protest it." She saw Anderson tensing, and hastened to add, "Please note- I'm not trying to second-guess your judgement, or make any criticisms of your decisions. I simply would like to understand the incident in a bit more detail."
Anderson smiled. "Have I been that oversensitive, Doctor?" she asked. "You don't need to be quite that careful of my feelings."
"I'm glad." T'Laren let herself relax visibly. "I've dealt with far too many starship and starbase commanders who perceive any questions as a threat to their authority. I'm happy to see you're not like that."
"No. I'm not quite that much of a martinet." She leaned forward slightly. "I'm going to have to put the whole thing into the perspective of the time. You read in the files about Security Chief Ohmura's death?"
"I read that he died protecting Q from an assassin, yes."
"This was the situation. A human man named Tom Lindon came aboard with a collection of 19th and 20th century antiques, claiming to be an antiques dealer who'd heard about Q's interest in Earth antiques. Several of the items in his collection were weapons- antique firearms- but Commander Ohmura didn't consider that a problem. Lindon had impeccable credentials stating that he was in fact who he said he was, and it's far from illegal to sell antique weapons. Also, we were used to attacks from alien species no one ever heard of, not fellow humans. Ohmura checked that the firearms were unloaded, and let him through to see Q.
"Several people showed up to see what was going on; Q's not the only person on the base with an interest in antiques, and itinerant traders are usually a source of color and entertainment on a starbase. At some point, Lindon must have loaded one of the firearms- I'm not sure how. I never got a chance to talk to Ohmura about it, and certainly I didn't see him do it. But in any case, he waited until nearly everyone in the room was on one side, looking at his wares. He then pulled the gun and announced that he was going to kill Q.
"It was a stupid move on his part. There was a table between him and Q; Q could have ducked. Q didn't. I screamed at him to get down, but he froze. There was no one who could reach Lindon in time, and no time for anyone to draw a phaser. Ohmura was closest to Q; he threw himself in front of Q, knocking him down, and got a bullet in the back of the head." Anderson shook her head. "We think of 20th century weapons as antiques, almost harmless things when compared to today's weapons. But a bullet in the back of the skull is just as deadly to us today as it was to our ancestors four hundred years ago.
"Another security officer reached Lindon and disarmed him. Once we had him neutralized, he told us everything quite freely. He really was an antique dealer, who'd been approached by an alien woman named Jihana Melex to kill Q. According to him, Melex had given him strict orders not to harm anyone else. AWe tracked her down and captured her, where she corroborated Lindon's story. She also explained why she wanted Q dead- about twenty years ago, he had come to her starship and put the crew through a particularly ruthless test. All of them failed but her. All of them died, but her. When she learned that her crewmates' murderer was on Starbase 56 and vulnerable, she came to Federation space, researched our defenses, and hired the antique dealer, who was quite taken with her.
"We asked Q about her story. I think we were all hoping he'd deny it. That Ohmura hadn't just died to protect a murderer. We'd never had any direct evidence of his crimes before, except for the ones he committed against the Enterprise. We all wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt- at least I did. And all he said was that he'd been in a bad mood that day."
"Difficult to understand how anyone could have that little conception of how to deal with people," T'Laren said.
"It is. It's very difficult. I tell you in confidence, Doctor, I wanted him dead. Lieutenant Commander Ohmura was a good man, friendly and warm, something you very rarely see in a security chief. He did his job well, and he could be intimidating as hell when he had to be, but when he was off-duty he was cheerful, kind... Too many security men are cold and suspicious all the time. Ohmura wasn't. Which might be what killed him, that he gave Lindon the benefit of the doubt. But everyone liked him and no one liked Q, and it'd just turned out that Q was a monster who'd deserved to die. Melex's story was heartwrenching. We could all understand why she'd want to kill Q; all of us have been on starships, all of us have seen fellow crew killed pointlessly. And the worst of it was that if Q had obeyed my order and ducked, Ohmura wouldn't have needed to knock him down and die for it. I sent Melex to Earth to be tried for conspiracy and attempted murder, but I couldn't really blame her for what she'd done. I blamed Lindon and I blamed Q.
"I wasn't the only one who blamed Q, as it turned out. He used to take long walks around the perimeter of the station. A few days after Ohmura's death, the security monitors on a portion of the perimeter went down. Q happened to be in that portion of the perimeter. Two human males ambushed him and beat him within an inch of his life. He said later that he couldn't identify his assailants, as the lighting was dim- it was night on the base- and they wore masks. But they had to be two of our own security. No one else would have had access to the security monitors to shut them down without Engineering noticing.
"I was furious. Mostly I was angry at the men who'd done it; regardless of our opinion of him, Q was still under our protection, and attacking an unarmed civilian is not Starfleet behavior. But partially I was angry at Q himself. I felt as if he'd provoked the attack. So I restricted his movements to the main areas of the base. He accused me of punishing him for being a victim... I denied it at the time, I said it was for his safety, but in retrospect he was right. I was punishing him."
"Do you think he did do anything to provoke the attack? That perhaps it began as a verbal fight that escalated?"
"No. According to Q himself, the two simply grabbed him as he came around a corner, ripped off his combadge, and began beating him. All they said was that this was for Ohmura- who would have despised such behavior in his department. I don't necessarily believe everything Q says, but when we finally caught the perpetrators, they didn't deny the accusation or try to claim he provoked them directly. Besides, there were the monitor failures. That had to be set up in advance. No, they set out to ambush Q."
"Did he make any attempt to fight back?"
"I doubt it. For someone that so many beings want dead, Q's singularly incompetent at defending himself. He's more skilled at verbal attacks and defense than anyone I've ever seen, but let it get physical and he's helpless. You wouldn't think so; he's a big man, but he has no idea how to use his body in a fight. I saw this at work once. In the early days of his time here, maybe two or three months after his arrival, he went into the bar in the transients' sector. We had a number of visitors in dock, most of whom didn't have anything to do with him. He said the wrong thing to the wrong being and all of a sudden he was a bloody pulp on the floor, screaming for help. I ordered him to take self-defense training after that, but... he's got no natural instinct to hit back. Q's first reaction to being attacked is to run. If he can't run, he curls up in a fetal ball and begs for mercy. It's not entirely ineffective- most races find it hard to keep pounding on someone who's so abjectly helpless."
"Why do you think he can't fight back? He's certainly defended himself in the past-"
"-by turning people into ice cubes or eels or small babies, or sending them into oblivion, or any number of other creatively nasty attacks. Yes, I know. I wouldn't call those defenses, though. Let's face it, none of the people he did things like that to could possibly have hurt him. I think it's the fear of pain that paralyzes him. If you strike at someone, you become vulnerable yourself. He learned one or two techniques in theory, but he can't use them in an actual fight. When we started preparation for the Borg, he didn't have time for the self-defense classes anymore, especially considering how he stubbornly refused to get any use out of them, so I let him quit. Maybe I shouldn't have."
"He doesn't seem to learn anything from being attacked, then."
"Oh, he learns," Anderson said, with a touch of exasperation. "He just learns the wrong thing. He hasn't been back in the bar without bodyguards and an express invitation since he got beaten up there. Rather than learning not to antagonize people or how to defend himself, he's learned not to go to bars."
"Did he learn anything from being attacked by Security?"
"I'm not sure. We found the perpetrators and court-martialed them, but there continued to be a cold war between Q and Security. He kept complaining to me that they were making his life miserable, but there was nothing I could actually reprimand them for. Showing up late to escort him somewhere, staring at him while he ate, that sort of thing. And I admit I didn't try very hard to find some way to reprimand them. Q had made all of our lives miserable for close to two years now, and... it was just very easy to despise him." She shook her head. "It says something about humanity, you know. We believe we've come so far, we're so modern and compassionate and we've driven all the demons out of our souls. But even people in Starfleet, the best of the breed, are capable of beating a helpless civilian senseless as he pleads for mercy and then blaming him for the attack. What does that say about us? Sometimes I think you Vulcans had the right idea in getting rid of all emotion."
"It would be a poorer universe, if everyone in it was a Vulcan," T'Laren said. "And even Vulcans are capable of doing despicable things. I won't put any of this in any kind of report to Starfleet, Commodore; I don't think Starfleet analysts could understand the pressures you were under."
"I'm sometimes not sure I understand." Anderson put a hand to her forehead, supporting herself with an elbow on"the desk. "I haven't even really gotten to the worst part yet... After about two weeks of this, Q filled up his bathtub with water, smashed a ceramic mug to get a sharp edge, and cut his wrists."
"Another of his antiques. You have to understand, cutting your wrists in the bathtub is the granddaddy of all melodramatic gestures. The cuts were shallow, they were across the wrist instead of along it, and he did this in the middle of the day, about two hours before he was scheduled to meet with visitors. There was almost no chance he would actually die before someone found him. I was furious with him. It was as if he was trying to shift the whole thing away from Ohmura's death and back to poor, poor pitiful Q. And I just didn't want to fall for it. I took away the bathtub and most of the other antiques, on the grounds that they were sharp or breakable or hard enough for him to crack his skull on, increased his replicator restrictions so he couldn't get anything dangerous- etching solution never occurred to me, I'm afraid. But I was determined to prevent him from making any more of these ridiculous melodramatic gestures. I started thinking that his first suicide attempt hadn't been a serious attempt, either. That was a month or two after we defeated the Borg, and it seemed to me suddenly that that one had to have been a bid for attention and sympathy, too. And we fell for it. And I was damned if I was going to fall for it this time."
"But it seems to me as if the attempt might almost have been an apology," T'Laren said. From her talk with Q, she didn't think that attempt had been a bid for sympathy, but it seemed such a studiedly incompetent method of dying that it almost had to be a gesture of some sort. "A recognition that he'd done something horrible and that he couldn't live with the pain he'd caused. Did that interpretation occur to anyone?"
"Quite frankly, no. Q doesn't feel guilt. He doesn't understand the concept. Anyone who could dismiss the deaths of 45 sentient beings with 'I was in a bad mood that day' obviously doesn't feel guilt. Or at least, if he does, he spends a lot of effort to hide it. I've never seen him appear even slightly remorseful for anything."
"Mm. So at this point you put in the monitor?"
"Yes. He'd made a few token protests about the replicator restrictions and the loss of his collection. His argument was that he was still miserable, but Counselor Medellin had reminded him why he was putting up with this, which was the chance that he would get his powers back, and he wasn't going to do anything to jeopardize that again. I didn't believe him. He'd told me the last time he attempted suicide that he'd never try it again. And he didn't put up much of a fight. When I told him I'd put in the monitor, though, he became hysterical. He told me that a lack of privacy would in itself surely drive him to suicide again, and that he was going to go on a hunger strike until the monitor came out. And I said, 'Go ahead.'"
Anderson's voice dropped almost to a whisper on the last words. She was evidently unhappy with what she'd done. T'Laren thought she would appreciate a chance to explain herself, and obligingly asked, "Why?"
"In the first place, I didn't think he could go through with it. Q can't handle pain of any sort. Not that he couldn't go hungry for a few days; there were a few times during the work against the Borg that he literally forgot to eat for a day or two. And remind me later to tell you about that whole thing with the Borg later, because I think you need to know about it for balance, but I want to finish this. A day or two without eating wouldn't hurt him, I figured, and I didn't think he could stick it out longer than that. Also, he was terrified of boredom, and I was sure I could get him to eat if I had to by cutting off his computer access. And in a last resort we could force-feed him. This was just another one of his grand melodramatic gestures, and I still refused to fall for it.
"I had him watched. For two days he went about his daily business without eating. He didn't draw any attention to the fact that he wasn't eating, he just didn't eat. I was surprised. It isn't like Q to do anything quietly, and making a grand gesture seems rather pointless if you don't tell anyone about it. But I watched him, and on the third day, when he was supposed to receive important visitors, then he chose to make his grand gesture. He announced to the world in general that he was going on a hunger strike to get the monitor out of his quarters, and that he refused to see any visitors or talk to anyone until the monitor was out. He then took to his bed.
"I cut off his computer access and waited for him to get bored and demand it back. He didn't. He sat in bed reading an antique book. So I sent security in to get his books, and I told him he'd get them back when he ate. He didn't say anything. Just stared at me. I expected him to break down about half an hour after that. He didn't. He stayed in bed, staring at the ceiling, for three days. On the third day-" She hesitated again, looking ashamed. "On the third day I had food smells pumped into his room through his air vents. I was sure that would do it. It didn't. He stayed in bed. So I gave in."
"Why was that the turning point?"
"If it was that important to him- Q had said repeatedly in the past that he couldn't survive without computer access, that boredom would kill him, that sort of thing. Obviously this wasn't literally true, but it said something about his priorities. Going without food just said he had a bit more self-control than I'd thought. Putting up with utter boredom and simply staying in bed- I mean, I was watching him. He didn't do anything but sleep and stare at the ceiling. And that impressed me. It was a gesture, of course, but sometimes I think the only way Q can communicate is through gestures. He was telling me that this issue of privacy was more important than the thing he'd previously told me was the most important thing in his life. And when he still didn't respond after the food smells, I was ashamed of myself. I had expected that to break him quickly. If he had the self-control to hold out, then this had to be immensely important to him, and I was torturing him. I can be a hardass on occasion, but I like to think I'm not a torturer. So I took the monitor out."
She sighed. "Maybe I should have put it back in surreptitiously. But Q's not a prisoner here. He's legally a Federation citizen now; he's got rights. And if security hated me, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want a monitor of any sort in my quarters, either. Besides, he didn't seem suicidal anymore. I can't say he seemed happy to be alive, but he seemed pretty determined to stay that way, after the whole hunger strike thing was over. And I'd thought the whole thing was a gesture anyway, and that he'd learned that that particular gesture didn't work."
"Do you still think it was a gesture? In the light of current events?"
"I don't know. I'd still like to believe it was. Because if he was genuinely trying to do himself in... then we drove him to it, that time at least. He came here for protection and we pushed him into trying to kill himself."
T'Laren hesitated. That seemed the likeliest alternative, from what she had gathered. But she was in no position to judge. She had done far worse in her time than drive an unstable man to the brink of suicide. "I won't deny that Starbase 56 hasn't been the best emotional climate for him. But you shouldn't be too hard on yourself, either. Humans have limits. As do Vulcans. As, apparently, do members of the Q Continuum, or Q would still be their problem and not ours."
Anderson made a slightly impatient gesture of negation, shaking her head once and chopping the air with a half-clenched fist. "The thing is that he isn't completely hopeless. Or he wasn't, two years ago. When we were working against the Borg, it was like he was a different man."
"Yes, you did say you wanted to tell me about that time. What was different?"
"When he first came here, his first month or so, he was at his absolute worst. I think he was testing the limits, seeing how much he could get away with. But in the third or fourth month, we started preparations against the Borg. And since Q knew more about the Borg than any of us, there was never any question but that he'd have a focal role in preparing for our defense.
"He knew approximately when they'd be arriving, so we knew we were under a time constraint. And we had scientists, engineers, tacticians, all sorts of people coming through here to talk to Q- and he behaved himself beautifully. It really was as if he were a different man. He still got impatient, but he was almost never nasty or obnoxious, and never obstructionist. He drove himself the way the rest of us did- in some respects more; I think he got less sleep than any other human on the project. He routinely pulled 20, 22-hour shifts. There were times when he'd forget to eat for a day or two."
Anderson leaned forward, holding T'Laren's gaze intently, as she continued. "I do want to put this in perspective- I'm not trying to imply that Q did anything superhuman, or anything that the rest of us didn't do. All of us pushed ourselves. But we were Starfleet, trained for this sort of crisis, and we were fighting for our homes and our lives. At one point Q said he expected to be struck by a bolt from the blue any minute now, for helping us against the Borg, and we all laughed. Later I asked him about it, and I found out he was serious. The Q Continuum apparently does have something roughly equivalent to a Prime Directive, and he was thrown out, in part, for breaking it. What we were planning to do, what he had advised us and helped us to do, would be tantamount to genocide. And he fully expected he was going to be punished, probably killed, for using his knowledge to do this. All the rest of us were fighting to preserve our lives and the lives of our families and friends. Q was actually risking his life in helping us."
"Why did he do it?"
"Oh, he said that he was fighting to preserve his own life, the same as the rest of us. The Borg would certainly kill him; the Q Continuum might or might not. But there were other things he said, when asked less baldly, that implied he just didn't want to see humanity destroyed. That whether he lived or died, he would rather see us destroy the Borg than vice versa. And I started to genuinely respect him. He was still too abrasive to really like, but he'd come so far, transcended all the whining and the self-pitying and the selfish demands. He was less physically suited for this than any of us, and he had less at stake than any of us, and he still managed to rise to the occasion with the rest of us. I was proud we had him here, then. I was glad to be protecting him.
"And then we won. We managed to crash the Borg net, rendering them effectively helpless, and the joint Klingon-Federation fleet carved their ship into little bits. We had a victory party, and then everyone went home... and Q reverted to the same selfish bastard he'd been when he arrived. He'd shown that he was capable of matching the best humanity had to offer, and then he slid back. I was furious. If he could behave himself when it was important, obviously he knew how. So if he was being an asshole again, it was by choice. He wanted to be an asshole. He chose to do this. He'd shown me a glimpse of a decent human being under that facade, and then he'd gone and covered up that glimpse with mud. Do you understand how betrayed I felt?"
"I think so," T'Laren said.
"I know there's the potential to be a halfway decent person in there. I've seen it. But he negates it, and I don't know what would be worse; him not having any potential at all, or the fact that he does and he doesn't use it. If he were nothing but a complete selfish monster, I could just hate him. Or take him out of the category of sentient beings and put him in with forces of nature, like black holes. But there's just enough humanity in him that I can't do that. I think that makes it worse. Because I have to feel sorry for him when he self-destructs, as well as angry at him for the people he hurts along the way. It'd be easier if I could just hate him."
"It's always easier to hate," T'Laren said. "That's why Starfleet tries so hard to train it out of its officers. I hope you're right, that there is some potential in there I can reach. I think there is."
"I hope I'm right too and that it turns out you can reach it. Because Q may be valuable as a source of information, but he's worthless as a human being. And his life and the lives of everyone around him are going to be miserable as long as that's the case."
Lieutenant Amy Frasier, biologist, was considerably less forgiving than Commodore Anderson. "No. There's no potential in there. He's just a complete bastard."
"Why do you say so?" T'Laren asked.
Frasier was a beautiful human woman with a slim, sensual body, ringlets of red hair, porcelain-pale skin and eyes the color of Vulcan blood. At the moment, though, her beauty was marred by a scowl of hatred. "I've had the misfortune of working with Q for three years. He's entirely despicable. A monster. He's killed god knows how many beings and tortured however many more for nothing more than his amusement, and he'd do it again if he got his powers back. I've asked never to be left in charge of him, because I don't know what I'd do. Our mission's supposed to be to protect him, for the sake of his knowledge, but I don't think he's given us a damn thing we couldn't have gotten ourselves, including the victory over the Borg, and if one of these alien assassins ever does manage to get him I'll dance on his grave."
This sort of vitriol didn't exist in a vacuum. "Did he ever do anything to you personally?" T'Laren asked.
"No," Frasier said, lying. The flash of fury in her eyes, the slight clenching of teeth and hands, all said "yes". The "no" was simply to inform T'Laren that she didn't want to talk about it or acknowledge it. "No more than he does to anyone else. Maybe I just see through all his bullshit more easily."
Lieutenant Frasier wasn't exactly going to be a mine of information, T'Laren decided. More like a minefield. "Well, thank you for letting me talk to you."
"Don't be fooled by him, Doctor," Frasier said, as T'Laren got up. "He may seem perfectly nice and innocent at first. But as soon as he's found a way under your skin, he goes for the jugular."
"I'm a Vulcan," T'Laren said. "I doubt my jugular is located where Q thinks it is."
Lieutenant Harry Roth, physicist, was helpful in shedding some light on Frasier's opinions. "You can't take anything Frasier says seriously," he said, laughing. "At least not where it comes to men, and especially not when it comes to Q."
Roth was a slim, tall man with short curly black hair, a big nose, and expressive brown eyes. He wasn't particularly handsome, but he was pleasant to look at. Where Frasier had thrown off deadly radiation as soon as the subject of Q came up, Roth seemed cheery and sociable, with a pleasant British-accented speaking voice. T'Laren recognized that she would have a tendency to take his opinions more seriously because he was more personable, and filed the knowledge away under the heading of combatting her own biases. She had never achieved the Vulcan ideal of eliminating emotion, but she would acknowledge it, master it, and keep it from interfering. "Why do you say so?" she asked.
"Well. Amy is... uh, there's not really any polite way to say this. Let's say Amy is a connoisseur of males. Klingons, Andorians, Betazoids, Rigellians... if it comes to this starbase, it's humanoid and it has three legs, she'll attempt to seduce it. She's even bragged about catching one or two Vulcan males. I'm not sure how much credence to give that."
"It's possible," T'Laren said. "The sort of Vulcans that go into Starfleet are generally not good upstanding Vulcan citizens. I believe the word actually would be 'perverts'." She gave him another of her almost-smiles. "Certainly Lieutenant Frasier's hypothetical partners wouldn't be the first Vulcans I've heard about who've had casual liaisons with humans."
"Really." Roth grinned. "I suppose you guys can't all be as steadfastly monogamous as you like us to think."
"Monogamy is illogical," T'Laren said blandly. "Sex is a learned skill, after all. How is one to maximize one's ability without studying from multiple sources?"
Roth laughed. "You are joking, aren't you?" he said. "I never know with you folks. Commander Sekal is terribly serious3/4 I suppose I always assumed that all of you fit the stereotype, because he does so well."
"I am a very atypical Vulcan," T'Laren said. "Yes, it was intended as a joke."
"A joking Vulcan! Next I'll be meeting a Betazoid security officer!" Roth sobered a bit. "In all seriousness, however, I really wouldn't give a lot of weight to Amy's opinions regarding Q. As I've said, Amy collects new and different males. She liked Q fine for the first three months he was here- in fact, she liked Q fine when no one else liked him at all, since he was quite the miserable bastard when first he got here. Then all of a sudden he became the Anti-Christ. I don't believe it's too difficult to piece together events."
"You believe they had an affair?"
"Oh, no, no, certainly not. I believe that was Amy's intention, however. Or rather, she no doubt intended a single night of pleasure, as she rarely keeps her men after the initial novelty's worn off. She's... not exactly subtle, either. I've been on the other side of her wiles once or twice. It's like being hit with a sledgehammer. And Q seems to be remarkably impervious to feminine charms, or anyone's charms for that matter. A sledgehammer is what it would take to get him to notice."
"So Frasier hit him with a sledgehammer."
"And he undoubtedly eviscerated her in response. Q is... well, I wouldn't want him rejecting me. Mind you, all this is rumor and guesswork. Amy doesn't talk about her failures and Q doesn't talk about sex, or his lack thereof, at all. But I imagine it had to have been fairly nasty, or she'd have spread rumors that she'd gotten him to drop drawers for her anyway. She does with most men. At one point the rumor mill was full of my supposed fling with her, before my co-workers learned just how much my type Amy is not."
"How much your type is Lieutenant Frasier not?" T'Laren asked, and then shook her head. "I have no idea if that sentence made any sense."
Roth grinned. "Well, it's my phrasing, so I understand you. For one thing, Amy's the wrong sex."
"Ah. That would do it." T'Laren had been wondering if Roth's cheerily cruel descriptions of Frasier's activities might stem from some sort of sexual betrayal. It seemed unlikely now. "Then if I can't trust Frasier's opinions regarding Q, can I ask you for yours?"
"Mine are rather heretical, I'm afraid," Roth said, smiling. "I don't actually mind him. When he's in his better moods, I rather enjoy talking to him."
"That does seem somewhat heretical. Can you explain?"
"Nothing easier. I worship intelligence, Dr. T'Laren. In my business, I have to deal with so many obnoxious posers and egotistical bastards who think they're the best thing that ever happened to Federation physics since Zephram Cochrane. Q genuinely is. I can put up with a great deal of arrogance from someone who's got the ability to back it up, and I'd say Q does. Beyond a doubt he's the brightest individual I've ever met, and I've met some of the Federation's brightest minds. I won't say I'd like to be his pal, or even that I could stand being locked in a room with him for forty-eight hours, but in small doses I find him quite tolerable."
"The fact that he goes out of his way to offend and annoy people doesn't work with you?"
"Well, you have to understand that Q does that sort of thing to varying degrees, depending on who he's dealing with. He respects intelligence. He has no respect for anything else. Q has no need for any of our social constructs, any of our little pleasantries. He doesn't care what your rank is or what sex you are or what you look like. He cares about exactly one thing: are you bright enough to hold a conversation with him without boring him? And I myself am not exactly stupid. I wouldn't put myself in Q's league, but I think he has some respect for me. So perhaps he's a little less cruel to me than he might be to others. And being bright and arrogant myself, I've got an awfully thick skin. He's occasionally said something that offended me deeply- especially when he first arrived. He was a true bastard then. I think he's mellowed somewhat since. But the thing you have to understand is that he doesn't mean any of it personally. Brutally witty repartee seems to be the only way he knows how to relate to people. And since he's not my roomie or my brother or my superior officer, I don't have to put up with it all the time. It's occasionally refreshing to try to match wits with him for a while."
"Yes, I've noticed that myself."
"So I just learned not to take it personally. Verbal combat is an old and honorable form of interaction, after all. I wouldn't want to be limited to it, but an occasional joust does me no harm. And there are certainly some pompous bastards who've been in here that were desperately asking for a good skewering. I have occasionally stood on the sidelines and secretly cheered as Q deflated some balloon-head. And his presence here does bring the brightest. So I can't actually say that I have any reason to dislike him, at least not with the fervor that most of the base seems to devote to it."
"Have you ever talked to him seriously? Without verbal jousting?"
"About physics, yes. Quite often. About anything personal... not really, aside from the fact that when he's in a mood he complains constantly. That does get a bit tedious, I have to admit. But listening to Q whine is usually much more entertaining than listening to some pompous ambassador say anything, so even that doesn't put me out much." He frowned slightly. "Rumor has it that you've come to take him off our hands."
"That's the theory."
"I may be the only person on the base that'll miss him at all," Roth said with an ironic half-smile. "How is he, anyway?"
"Physically, he's improving. I intend to have him out of bed and getting some exercise before the week's out, though I may have an argument with Dr. Li about that. Mentally, though..." She shook her head. "His condition's not very good. I have a great deal of work ahead of me to convince him that his best option isn't death."
"I really am sorry to hear that. I don't suppose they'd let me in to visit, would they? Or would it be a good idea at all?"
"It can't hurt to let him know that someone actually does not dislike him. He won't be able to talk back to you, however, so keep it short and try not to say anything he'd want to argue with."
"That's quite an order," Roth said, smiling wryly. "Not saying anything he'd want to argue with might be a physical impossibility."
Lieutenant Commander Gretchen Wernicke, morphologist, didn't know Q personally well at all. "I don't have a lot of dealings with him," she admitted, "which suits me fine. But I have to tell you, I'd take anything Harry or Frasier told you with a grain of salt."
"Lieutenant Roth warned me that Lieutenant Frasier may have ulterior motives in her hatred of Q."
Wernicke, despite her Germanic name, was a tiny, nervous black woman with short hair, skin the color of chocolate mousse, and a habit of pacing. "He did, did he? Well, he would. His theory's that Frasier hates Q because Q rejected her, right?"
"More or less."
"It could well be true. I don't know. But whatever Harry said about Q himself, you have to worry about the same problem from the opposite direction."
"The same problem? I'm not sure I take your meaning."
"Look, Harry probably told you and if he didn't, I will. He likes men. And Q himself- seems to attack women a lot worse than men. Maybe that's just my personal bias, but that's how it looks to me. He's nasty to everyone, but I always got the impression he saves the heavy artillery for women. He goes easier on men. You have to wonder."
"You think Lieutenant Roth and Q-"
"Oh, no. Not like that- I don't think it ever got that far. I mean, it couldn't have, I don't care how discreet they were, it'd have gotten on the rumor mill. I'm almost surprised it didn't anyway, considering that everyone knows Harry's tastes and that he can actually stand Q. Me, Q's not my type. I didn't think he was attractive when he first showed up and he certainly looks like hell now. But he's definitely Harry's type- bright, human, male, over 180 cm and not visibly deformed. Harry's not that picky."
"But you don't think anything actually did happen between them."
"Who wants to risk asking Q for anything? Frasier's not my favorite person, but one thing I can say, she's not exactly sensitive about rejection. Whatever Q did to her, it'd probably turn anyone else into a radioactive puddle of protoplasm. And Harry's a pretty sensitive guy. I mean, I could be totally wrong about all this. But I don't think Harry would even dare drop hints unless Q sent him an engraved invitation, and that's going to happen around the time the sun goes nova. Not that Q would notice hints, either."
All of this was interesting, and somewhat helpful, but T'Laren was interested in more than rumors about Q's sex life. "What is your own opinion of Q?"
Wernicke shrugged. "Like I said, I don't see him much- there isn't much use for him in my specialty. I study the physical and neural structure of humanoid bodies. Q's structure is human; not much he can add there, and it's not a subject he knows anything about, except to occasionally contradict me by citing some ridiculous alien species that lives three galaxies away and none of us will ever see. From what I've seen... he's a jerk. I'm glad I don't have to work with him much. I don't have a very strong opinion one way or another, though I do keep wondering how a guy as old as he is could possibly be so incompetent with people. I mean, what do his own people do? Spend all their time arguing with each other? Or is that why they threw him out?"
"I'm not sure," T'Laren said.
"I tell you something, if I ever got to be a few million years old, I wouldn't act like a spoiled teenager. Maybe that makes me an inferior being. If so, I say long live inferiority. And if he's the future of humanity, maybe we should pack it in now."
"I doubt he is."
"I hope so. But I really don't have anything to add or whatever. Maybe you ought to talk to Commander Sekal, he works with Q a lot."
T'Laren had no desire to talk to a fellow Vulcan for any reason whatsoever. "Perhaps I will," she said blandly, having even less desire to share her feelings with Commander Wernicke.
In the end, Sekal cornered her. "It has come to my attention that you've been interviewing various members of my department regarding their impressions of Q."
There could be no faking it, not with a real Vulcan. And that was ironic, because it was being faced with a fellow Vulcan that made T'Laren's pulse race and her throat go dry, far more than anything else could have. She had to remind herself that he didn't know her, had no idea of her disgrace, and couldn't actually see inside her skull the way Soram could. The fact that his tall, chiseled asceticism reminded her a lot of Soram didn't help. T'Laren forced down the panic, suppressing rather than mastering it, and responded coolly. "That is correct."
"I had wondered if you planned to interview me as well. My experience in dealing with Q is not inconsiderable."
Can anyone explain to me why circumlocutions and expressions like "not inconsiderable" are somehow more logical than coming straight to the point?
"My interest is in gaining a picture of Q's emotional state and relations with fellow humans. It had not occurred to me that you would have any insight into his emotional condition that you would wish to share with me." No. All wrong. I sound as if I'm accusing him of a lack of insight and of withholding information, in the same sentence. "Few Vulcans make a study of human emotional states, and-" Horrified, she trailed off, realizing she had no idea what to say next. "And I did not want to impose on you," she finished, somewhat lamely.
Sekal raised an eyebrow. "I have lived among humans for thirty-three years now," he said. "It is impossible to function in Starfleet without some understanding of humans. And my work would be impossible without some understanding of Q. If only the ability to understand that he is likely to be particularly obstructionist under given circumstances."
"I see. I should then avail myself of your understanding." She wished fervently he didn't look so much like Soram. Her control would be so much better if he didn't remind her of Soram.
"That is acceptable," Sekal said. "Shall we go to my office?"
"That would be best," T'Laren said, inwardly convinced it was far from best. How can I have so many years of experience as a counselor, know so much about the psychology of aliens, and be so incompetent when it comes to my own kind? Lhoviri, are you sure this repair job of yours has really taken at all?
In Sekal's office, he motioned T'Laren to a seat and took one himself. He folded his hands on his desk. "I do not wish to invade your privacy," he said. "It has become obvious, however, that you are somewhat distressed in my presence."
It took all of T'Laren's control to keep from turning visibly green. No Vulcan on Vulcan would ever be so forward. Was he just rude from years with humans, as she was, or had he decided to treat her as human because of her obviously feeble control? "My logic is unimpaired."
"I make no accusations. Nor do I judge by the standards of the homeworld. There are too few Vulcans in Starfleet for us to condemn one another. If your distress arises from a belief that I would consider you less for your human behaviors, be assured that that is not the case. I fully understand that a counselor for humans must adopt human behavior to set them at ease, and that such a facade is not easily dropped."
He was giving her a way to save face, a logical reason for her lack of control. T'Laren felt absurdly grateful. It was illogical to judge all Vulcans by her family and Soram, after all. Even little Sovaz, Soram's own sister, proved that not all Vulcans were judgmental. "I was raised among humans," T'Laren explained. "And I have spent most of my life among them. It creates difficulties."
"I understand the problem. My wife, T'Meth, is a security officer. Fellow Vulcans have occasionally accused her of failing to live up to Surak's principles of pacifism. It apparently never occurred to them to apply Surak's principle of IDIC. So I am acquainted with the difficulty."
His wife? Yes, of course he had a wife. All Vulcan men of a certain age had wives. Soram probably had another wife by now, too. Undoubtedly a calm and logical scientist who had spent her entire life on Vulcan and didn't like sex. And none of this had anything to do with Q. T'Laren wrenched herself from speculations on Soram's current circumstances and back to the subject. "What observations have you made regarding Q?" she asked.
"Three months ago," Sekal began, "Q came to my office seeking information on the Vulcan disciplines. He wished to understand the difference between Vulcan lack of emotion and human apathy. Initially I was wary, suspecting this to be a prelude to some sort of attack."
"Q often comes to your office to attack you?"
"It has happened. Q varies his tactics depending on who he's dealing with. Usually his tactic with me is to condemn Vulcan discipline as a wasted effort, useless at best and actively harmful at worst."
"Yet at the same time he's attacked humans for their emotions."
"I know. I pointed this out to him once. He replied that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
"That's a quote, actually," T'Laren said. "Or rather a misquote. Emerson said, 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'"
"I fear I've given Terran literature less attention than it deserves," Sekal said. "The point is that Q doesn't concern himself with being consistent. He attacks for the sake of attack. He conceives of himself as a devil's advocate, whose role in life is to challenge everyone and everything. So I expected that this would be a prelude to some sort of attack. Instead, it quickly became obvious that Q felt he had a genuine need for the information." Sekal hesitated. "I do not like to speculate without hard facts. But I believe that Q is not used to the intensity of human emotion, that he has never become used to it, and that it disturbs him."
"Surely the Q experience emotion."
"Surely they do. But I would imagine it's far less intense than what humans feel. When one's anger can destroy galaxies, one undoubtedly takes care to get angry rarely. In addition, as a being of pure thought Q would not have been subject to the hormonal fluctuations that make up so much of emotion."
"Has he ever spoken to you of the Continuum?"
"Once or twice. He dislikes talking about it, so I don't press him. He once analogized someone asking him about the Continuum to someone asking a crippled former marathoner how it felt to run in races. I could understand his point." He steepled his hands. "In any case. In our discussion, he made it quite clear that he sought to free himself from emotion, as much as humanly possible. He told me that he alternated between misery and apathy, that he could no longer bear either state, and that he feared his life would become entirely unbearable if he couldn't find a third alternative. So he wished to know how Vulcans perceive our lack of emotion, why we do not- I believe his words were 'kill yourselves out of boredom.'"
"What did you tell him?"
"I explained that the Vulcan disciplines do not destroy all feelings. Vulcans are capable of feeling contentment, even happiness, certainly satisfaction. Obviously, the converse is true as well. Vulcan discipline permits us to overcome periods of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, so that we can attempt to find a logical solution to our problems. He asked me what a Vulcan would do if crippled, blinded, and exiled among hostile strangers, with little hope of return- what the logical solution to that would be."
"Many Vulcans would in fact believe the logical solution to be suicide," T'Laren said softly.
"I'm aware of that, but I thought it unwise to tell Q so. I told him that if there was any hope the situation would ever be corrected, the Vulcan solution would be to hold out in hope of a better future. He then asked if he could learn the disciplines. I explained that no human has ever successfully adopted the Vulcan disciplines in full, even when trained in them from childhood. Q insisted that he was an exception, that his native intelligence should permit him to learn anything he wanted to. I further explained that he was far too old to learn- even Vulcan children need to begin training before adulthood. He pointed out that his body was actually only three years old, chronologically, and that by the standards of the Continuum he was a young Q, approximately equivalent to an adolescent."
"I've suspected that," T'Laren said, who had heard it from Lhoviri already. It was nice to have some independent confirmation of Lhoviri's statements, however.
"As have I. But his youth in terms of his species is irrelevant, and I told him so. His body is physiologically in its late thirties or early forties. His brain is almost certainly not flexible enough to adopt an entirely new thinking process, and even if it were, the human brain is not designed for the sort of things Vulcan brains can do. He grew more and more insistent that he could overcome all these obstacles. Finally, I made it clear to him that he could not learn the Vulcan disciplines, at which point..." Sekal almost looked embarrassed. "He began to cry. Needless to say, I was startled and a bit discomfited by this. He was quite hysterical, insisting that this was his only hope. If he killed himself, there was no chance his people would take him back. He had to hang on to his mortal existence if he were to have any hope of regaining his powers, and he said he couldn't bear to stay alive much longer. If he couldn't learn the Vulcan disciplines, or some way to stop feeling, his misery would kill him."
"Did this seem like his usual theatrics to you, or did he seem sincere?"
"Difficult to tell. I'm not used to dealing with crying humans. I felt rather out of my depth, and offered to call Medellin, but Q begged me not to tell any human beings of this. He told me that if a human were to learn how he'd lost control, he couldn't live with the shame. I could understand his point. Thus I gave my word I would tell no humans of this."
"You were manipulated," T'Laren said flatly.
"Q undoubtedly would feel shame at having an emotional weakness exposed to other humans. But that shame would be nothing equivalent to what a Vulcan would feel. Q used his knowledge of the Vulcan psyche to manipulate you into keeping his secret."
"Perhaps. I am aware that the shame would not be equivalent, though. And there is another aspect to this that you don't know."
"Indeed." T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "Please explain."
"Q has been known to become paranoid," Sekal said. "I have sometimes wondered if he suffers from mental illness beyond his obvious depression. You have undoubtedly been told of the incidents surrounding Commander Ohmura's death?"
"I know the situation."
"A regrettable circumstance." Sekal shook his head, very slightly. "And an example of human illogic at its worst. Most of the population of Starbase 56 held Q responsible for Commander Ohmura's death, in part because his actions in the past brought an assassin and in part because he froze under pressure. Of course, as a civilian with no training in how to behave under pressure, Q's reaction is understandable, and the Federation had already determined that we would not hold him responsible for crimes he committed as an omnipotent being. Thus leaving no reason to blame Q; Ohmura died in the line of duty, nothing more. But few humans saw it that way."
"Perhaps you've heard the rest of it, then. Has anyone discussed with you Q's reaction to the events around Ohmura's death?"
"His suicide attempt was described. If you're speaking of some other reaction-"
"Then assume I know nothing."
"Very well." Sekal closed his eyes, apparently marshaling his thoughts. "Three days after Lieutenant Commander Ohmura died, two security officers conspired to ambush Q and beat him savagely. Though Q couldn't identify his attackers personally, he was convinced they were security. Commodore Anderson resisted this interpretation at first; later evidence proved that Q was correct. By then the damage was done. Q became convinced that the humans on the base were involved in a conspiracy to kill him. He approached my wife, T'Meth, begging her to protect him, since he felt he could trust no other security officers. At first T'Meth agreed, as the identity of his attackers was unknown. Once the culprits were discovered and court-martialed, it seemed to T'Meth as if the danger to Q was past. It was highly unlikely, based on her experience with those in her department, that anyone else in security would violate their Starfleet oath in such fashion.
"Q disagreed, violently. He feared all of security, was convinced that they were out to kill him, believed that Commodore Anderson was in on the plot, and insisted that T'Meth should remain with him at all times. At this point T'Meth realized he was being irrational and paranoid, and refused to feed his fantasies any longer. She ceased acting as his personal bodyguard. He then decided that she was in on the plot as well. A week later he tried to kill himself."
This was an interesting development. "I see."
"When Q specifically requested that I not tell any humans of how he had lost control, I suspected he might be growing paranoid again. I felt that perhaps he feared that Counselor Medellin would... use what she knew of him to control him, or some such thing. And it seemed that if I told Medellin, Q would lose any trust in me that he had, as he had lost his trust in my wife a year ago. Whereas if I gave my word that I would not speak to her, he might continue to confide in me. I am no expert on human psychology, but better that he confide in me than that he have no one to talk to at all, and end up suiciding."
"Ah." T'Laren nodded. "Did he?"
"No. He never spoke of it again." Sekal looked down at the desk. "I studied him for some time after that, looking for further signs of illness. I had given my word I wouldn't speak to Medellin of what he and I had discussed; if new evidence came to light, I would be free to tell her of my suspicions. However, I saw no obvious signs of further deterioration, and I could not very well speak to Medellin on the basis of a 'hunch'. So I believed. And so I kept my word, and my silence, until it was too late."
"It is illogical to blame yourself," T'Laren said. "You are not trained to deal with such situations. Your actions were as correct as they could be under the circumstances."
"I understand this. But I find that in this case it is difficult to make myself believe it."
"Then don't," T'Laren said. "If you cannot eliminate the guilt, accept it and work to do better in the future. Perhaps you should strive to understand human beings a little bit more, so that this situation will likely not occur again."
"Yes," Sekal said quietly. "That is..." His expression changed very slightly, the tiny subtleties of what passed for a smile between Vulcans. "Logical."
T'Laren stood. "You have assisted me greatly,"she said. "I thank you."
"As I thank you for your assistance. Live long and prosper, T'Laren."
"Peace and long life, Sekal."
She had left Q alone to consider her offer for two days now. It was more than time to talk to him.
Q smiled as she approached. At this point she suspected it was more because he'd now be allowed to talk rather than happiness at seeing her. She flicked on the speaker. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Li says I'll be able to get out of this bed and start eating real food in about a week. I just care about the bed, myself, but apparently it's a package deal. They can't let me get up until they can stop feeding me through a tube in my stomach or whatever they've got under this arcane device." He meant the diagnostic unit, indicating it with a weakly waved hand.
"Very good. How do you feel?"
"Harry Roth was in here to visit yesterday. He had some sort of maudlin nonsense about how he hoped I felt better and that sort of thing. Did you put him up to it?"
"No. He asked if it would be permitted, and I said yes. It was entirely his own idea, however."
"Oh. Because it's embarrassing. Quite frankly, I'd forgotten Harry existed. It might be just as well that I couldn't talk, because I imagine he'd have been rather upset at what I'd have had to say. I don't like that sort of thing."
"Don't you? I've always had the impression you were rather fond of getting attention."
"I- well, yes, I do. But this is embarrassing. I barely know the man."
"I assure you, he's not under the impression that the two of you are best friends. He simply wished to let you know that there are some people aboard this starbase who care whether you live or die for your own sake and not for your value to the Federation."
"Yes, well, that's all very wonderful, I suppose, but it wasn't necessary. I put up with enough of that sort of thing from Counselor Medellin."
T'Laren wondered if Q's embarrassment might be because he was, consciously or unconsciously, picking up on what Gretchen Wernicke had seen in Roth. "Exactly why does that embarrass you?"
"Because it's silly and sentimental and I don't need it."
Or perhaps he was embarrassed because he did need it and was trying not to let it show. She would have to explore this with him later. "You have twice now avoided the question of how you feel," she said. "What are you trying to avoid telling me?"
"Physically I feel fine. Bored out of my mind, numb between the chest and knees, and weak as a starving Znarian spiderweb-dancer, but I'm not in any pain. I don't even itch anywhere- I think they're giving me some kind of drug that suppresses that. I may be covered with bedsores when I get out of here, but I can't feel them now. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"That's part of it. There's another part."
"Ah, yes. My mental state." Q smiled unpleasantly. "How odd that you should ask that. I've been doing a bit of research, Dr. T'Laren. Some very interesting things have come to light. And I've also been doing a good bit of thinking about your offer."
T'Laren resigned herself. There were some patients that simply would not stay on the subject. Besides, she needed to know what he thought of the offer anyway. "And what have you decided?"
"Well, it seemed like an excellent idea when I last talked to you. In fact, the only reason I didn't say I'd go with you then and there was that I was tired and I knew I might miss something. And so yesterday I was very bored, and not very tired, and so I lay here thinking over your marvelous offer. And for the first time, it occurred to me to wonder. What is a psychologist, a former Starfleet officer, doing with a spiffy prototype spaceship?"
"Did it occur to you that perhaps Starfleet gave it to me?"
"No, that didn't occur to me at all, for the simple reason that it's impossible. I may be a civilian, but considering that I'm a Starfleet scientific advisor their technologists keep me abreast of current warp theory, that sort of thing. Being what I am, and doing what I do, I have to be on the cutting edge of Starfleet warp technology. Or at least to know where, exactly, that edge is. And no new developments have been made in power, endurance, fuel efficiency, or any other factor that would lead to a significant improvement in speed since I worked with them to defeat the Borg. The maximum Starfleet vessels could handle then is still the maximum. And of course, all this doesn't address the question of what a psychologist would be doing with a prototype ship, anyway- I looked up your records, and you're no engineer. And my ego may be immense, but even I know I'm not that important to the Federation- they wouldn't waste such a prototype on me. So either you're lying or you got the ship somewhere else. And considering that on a Starfleet salary you're unlikely to have bought it at a Ferengi yard sale, I would very much like to know where you did get it."
"That's a fair question." She considered her words. "I would rather not give the intimate details. However, the essence of the story is that the ship was given to me, after I left Starfleet, by a powerful member of an alien race, more advanced than the Federation. It was payment for services rendered, the treatment of the individual's younger brother."
"Which alien race?"
"I'd rather not say. Some of their number have in the past been hostile to the Federation, and while you may not care, there are security monitors in here."
"There are a number of alien races that want me dead. Which alien race?"
No more room for half-truths; it was time for an outright lie. "The Yoma," she said.
"I've never heard of them."
"I doubt even you know every single race in all the galaxy."
"And how did you come upon them?"
T'Laren pressed her lips together. "A personal matter. I do not wish to discuss it."
"Well, how convenient."
Apparently the usual tactics were not working. T'Laren didn't expect that this one would work, either, but she had to try it. "Are you accusing me of lying to you?"
"Sounds like it, doesn't it?"
"I am a Vulcan."
"And Vulcans can lie when it suits their purpose. As you must know far better than I."
Well, she'd been right. It didn't work. "What exactly is so unbelievable about what I've said?"
"Oh, I am so glad you asked that." He moved his hand on his computer's tracball. "Thank you, by the way, for browbeating Li into giving me my computer back. I would never have found any of this without it. Exhibit A!"
The screen showed T'Laren's Starfleet record, the unclassified version. "T'Laren of Vulcan, formerly T'Laren Dorset of Texas, Earth," Q said. "I notice you didn't use your Terran last name when you entered the Academy. Excellent grades, though on the low side for a Vulcan, abysmal math scores for a Vulcan but still reasonable for a psychology major, meritorious service blah blah blah." The screen scrolled down to the bottom, her discharge record. "Medical discharge from Starfleet, two years ago. Counselor T'Laren of the starship Benjamin Franklin is granted a discharge for medical reasons and so forth. Signed by Captain Don Freeman of the Franklin, Chief Medical Officer M'Lei, also of Franklin- and Commander Janifer Stout of Starfleet Command, Psychology & Morale Division." He turned his head and looked up at her. "Now under most circumstances, you only need two signatures on a medical discharge- the captain's or commodore's or whatever, and the chief medical officer. The only circumstances where you need three is when it's a psych discharge, in which case the counselor's name is on it if there is a counselor. With me so far?
"But here's a case where the third name isn't the counselor's, it's a desk jockey's. And then it occurred to me that you were the counselor. What does one do when one's counselor goes bonkers? Assuming that she's lucid enough to try to hide her condition, the CMO might not be authorized to discharge her. After all, CMO's get psych training, but maybe they're not quite good enough to catch a psychologist with Vulcan training who knows how to hide what's wrong. This Dr. M'Lei would have been authorized to relieve you of duty- not to discharge you from Starfleet. For that, they'd have to bump it up to a higher authority, preferably a psychologist. And what do you know? Commander Stout is also Dr. Stout, a practicing psychologist. So the precise reason for your precipitous departure from Starfleet may be classified where I can't get at it. But I can make a reasonable guess that you left for mental illness. Especially since you told me you tried to kill yourself two years ago, which- surprise, surprise- is right around the time you left Starfleet. Sound good?"
"Your detective work is well-done, but a bit pointless. It's no secret that I left Starfleet for mental problems3/4 I would hardly have told you of my suicide attempt if I wished to hide that from you. You could have asked."
"Oh, really. Let me ask, then. Why did you leave Starfleet?"
"Mental instability. As I think you just found out."
"No, no, no. Not a catch-all phrase. What did you do? Tell your commanding officer that gremlins were conspiring to destroy the ship? Run down the corridors nude? Kill someone?"
It took all of her Vulcan control to keep from reacting to the last. "Nothing as obvious as that. I was... unstable. My control over my emotions was gone. I needed to return to Vulcan to relearn the disciplines. As you can see, I was successful."
"Not that successful. Who did you kill?"
The human-normal environments aboard most Starfleet facilities were cold and made Vulcans somewhat lightheaded anyway, from the lower gravity. But T'Laren had grown up on Earth and never felt it before. Now all of a sudden the starbase was very, very cold, and she felt as if she might float away. Oh, he was good at this. He knew no practical way to make people like him, but he could see through defenses as if they weren't there. Perhaps the Empress should consider getting new clothes, T'Laren thought, and forced composure. "Myself," she said softly. "But that was after I had already returned to Vulcan. I wasn't discharged for a suicide attempt." She would not tell him about Soram. Half-truths, outright lies if necessary, but she would not tell Q, of all people, of her shame.
"And you're supposedly all better now?"
"In all the senses that matter, yes." She sat down next to the bed. "You saw that I am... still sensitive over some parts of it. My control is far from perfect there. But I am not dangerous to myself or any other, I am in full control of my actions, and I act on logic, not on what I may feel. Because I do feel. I grew up without the disciplines, and I may never master them fully. I have emotions. But I choose to ignore them when they are irrelevant, which is most of the time."
"Wait, are those violins I hear playing in the background?"
Now she was on somewhat more familiar territory. Q's insults couldn't hurt her; it was his insights she feared. "Does that answer all of your concerns?"
"Far from it. You see, I also went looking for your orders." He glanced at the computer again. "Something you have to realize is that, to amuse myself, I have been teaching myself your Federation computer system, and its security, and how to bypass it, for the past three years. Considering my intelligence and affinity for this sort of thing, it's a measure of quite how good Starfleet security systems are that I can't get at high-security classified material. But I can access about what a lieutenant commander in Starfleet without a pressing need to know could get at, which covers most things. And I can't find your orders anywhere. Which means one of two things." He looked at her with a hard expression. "If you truly had orders from Starfleet to help and heal me and all such wonderfulness, they would not be classified beyond my reach. So either you don't have any orders, or your orders say something else."
"I'm a civilian. I wouldn't have orders."
"Your authorization, then. Whatever it is Starfleet hired you to do, it would be in the records here unless it didn't exist or was classified. I find it hard to believe that Anderson would simply take your word for it, so I'm inclined to believe the latter, but then you're a Vulcan and a former Starfleet officer and people would be inclined to trust you."
"And you conclude from all this?"
"Well, there are several possibilities." He studied her intently as he spoke. "Number one. You're an alien shapechanger posing as the Vulcan psychologist T'Laren. You've come to try to lure me away from the safety of the starbase, where you can dispose of me at leisure. Two, you are T'Laren, but you've been hired to do what I just said. Three, you are T'Laren, you're insane, and you think you have orders from Starfleet for whatever demented reason. Probably you also think you have a fast ship, too. If I go with you, I'll find myself out in the middle of nowhere with inadequate protection. Four, Starfleet hired you for some sinister purpose that they don't want to risk my finding out, so they classified your orders. Perhaps you're to perform psychological experiments on me or something. In any case, if any of these are true I'd be foolish to go with you. I have every intention of dying soon, but I'd like it to be quickly, cleanly and by my own hand. I have no desire to be handed over to some unfriendly species to be tortured to death."
"My orders were given to me in person. It's entirely possible that the requisition from Starfleet hasn't arrived yet; however, I do have Starfleet priority codes."
"Which can be faked."
"As can orders."
Q shook his head. "Try it on someone a bit more naive. You convince me that you're not an agent for some hostile power, not insane, and not lying about your orders, and I may go with you. Right now, though, I am sufficiently unconvinced that I'm tempted to call security on you and have you questioned." He looked up at her with narrowed eyes. "So. Convince me."
T'Laren considered. Lhoviri had warned her to avoid telling Q the truth for as long as she could... but it seemed there was no longer an alternative. "If you don't believe the half-truths I've been giving you, there's little chance you'll believe the whole truth," she said.
"Very well. When I told you where I got Ketaya, nothing but the name of the race that my benefactor belonged to was an actual untruth. If I had told you the name of that race, I suspect you would recognize it," she said dryly.
"Fine, then. Who are these marvelous aliens that give out spaceships for services rendered?"
"The Q Continuum," T'Laren told him.
Q's mouth opened and closed. No sound came out of the speaker.
Somewhat amused, T'Laren continued. "To be precise, I was approached by an individual I call Lhoviri, eight months ago. 'Approached' is perhaps the wrong term; he imposed his presence on me and dramatically interfered with my life. At the time I was not pleased. Once he'd persuaded me to listen to him, he requested my services for his, quote, 'little brother', explaining your situation. I was offered as payment... something I could not refuse. The details are somewhat personal. Suffice it to say that he saved my life, and helped me to regain my sanity. Ketaya was given me to help protect you; it isn't actually payment."
"Then you lied when you said Starfleet sent you," Q said, regaining some of his composure.
"No, actually. You asked me who hired me, and I said that Starfleet had grown concerned for your welfare. Which was true. Lhoviri told me he would arrange for me to receive orders from Starfleet, but if they're not in the computer perhaps he hasn't gotten around to it yet."
"You're right. I'm not at all sure that I do believe you."
"Because it's too perfect." His face twisted bitterly. "Essentially you're telling me that the Q Continuum hasn't forgotten about me. That I'm important enough to them that they'd hire a mortal psychiatrist for me. Which is something that, for obvious reasons, I'd very much like to believe, and I'm always very suspicious when someone tells me something I'd like to believe."
"What can I say that would convince you?"
"I don't know." He shrugged slightly. "This Q you call Lhoviri, what did he look like?"
T'Laren frowned. "Why does that matter?"
"It does. Trust me. Did he appear to you as a Vulcan?"
"No. A human male, blond, of medium build, with a slightly chubby face-"
"Talks with his hands?"
"I know him," Q said grimly. "All right. Now I believe you."
"How can you know him by a physical description? I was told your people could appear as anything they wished."
"We can. But within a certain species, we almost always take a certain form, and no one else is allowed to use it. The form you describe... is the human form reserved by the guy that got me thrown out of the Continuum." He shook his head. "If any of them would be watching me, he would."
"You don't sound particularly happy about it."
"I'm not. This adds a new dimension to the problem. You've almost managed to convince me that you are sincere. The question is, is Lhoviri?"
"I'm not sure I follow. He's your own kind. He hired me to help you-"
"So he said. But you see, once again we have different possibilities. It could be that Lhoviri feels somewhat responsible for me, being the author of my current predicament, and in his omniscient wisdom genuinely feels that you can help me. Or it may be that Lhoviri, who got me thrown out of the Continuum and has entertained himself since by watching my suffering, is planning a further turn of the screw. There isn't much lower than this that I can go, after all. He may be planning to let you build me back up again just so he can delight in crushing me even more utterly. And I have no way to know which."
"You must know him fairly well. You've spent millions of years with him-"
"This is how well I know him. I thought he was one of the few members of the Continuum on my side. It was a unanimous decision to exile me, of course, but reasons varied from individual to individual. Some viewed it as my just desserts, others as getting me out of their hair, and still others as a learning experience that would be good for me. Some would be more willing than others to see me come back. I thought Lhoviri was one of my champions, one who would argue after I was gone that the Continuum should relent and forgive me. Instead, I found out that he was the one who proposed that I be thrown out."
The speaker didn't render intonation very well. Even still, T'Laren could hear a wealth of bitter resentment and bewildered pain in Q's speech. "That must have hurt a great deal," she said gently.
"Oh, I'm not talking about how much it hurt. I'm used to betrayal by now, I don't even think about it much. But now I have to consider his motives. Because I know now I don't know him at all, I never did. And I'm a mortal. There's no way I can outthink a Q." He frowned. "Which answers my question, come to think of it."
"Answers your question? In what way?"
"I can't outthink a Q. If Lhoviri wants me to go with you, I'm going to end up doing it anyway whether I like it or not. My gods have spoken, I must obey." He sighed dramatically. "So I suppose I'm going with you."
"Q, I wanted you to come because you believe I can help you, not because you think you're being forced into it."
"Which is why you didn't want to tell me about this charming development?"
He shook his head. "If Lhoviri has my best interests in mind, you probably can help me. He'd know better than any mortal could. And if he doesn't... what can I do? They're omnipotent, and they're my family, and they're my only hope. I've got to do what they say, whatever it costs. So..." he shrugged. "I'll try to convince myself that Lhoviri means well. What's it mean, by the way? Is it Vulcan?"
"The name Lhoviri? It's a god, from pre-Reform mythology. Lhoviri was a god of gifts, but... questionable ones. The personification of the human adage, 'Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.' The wishes and gifts Lhoviri granted could backfire very badly on the recipient if the recipient wasn't very careful."
Q grinned. "Good name. I'll have to remember it. I'm rather fond of trickster archetypes myself."
T'Laren nodded. "Apparently Lhoviri- the myth, I mean- survives in cautionary tales told to children beneath the age of logic. I found out about him by reading books of Vulcan myths, when I was a child on Earth searching for my roots. Ketaya, by the way, is also named after a trickster archetype. The name translates vaguely as 'raven'- a trickster bird associated with death and transformation." She stood up. "Q, I don't know what Lhoviri's motives are. As should be obvious from the name I've given him, I don't trust him any more than you do. But he hired me to protect you and help you adjust to being human, and whatever his real purpose, that is what I'm going to do if it kills me. As far as I can, I'll protect you from whatever he has planned."
Q looked up at her seriously. "Thanks for the offer... but T'Laren, you can't protect me. He's omnipotent. If he wants to get me, he will." He shrugged again. "I'll just have to assume the best. Which doesn't come easily to me, you know; I'm far too cynical. But..."
"Well, if he's out to get me, I still couldn't sink much lower than I am right now. And if he's not... maybe this is what he wants me to do to get my powers back. Maybe that's what it'll take. So... all right. When do we leave?"
"As soon as Li lets you out of bed," T'Laren said.
It wasn't quite that simple, of course. Q was out of bed and walking- and complaining about it loudly- for short periods before four days were out. But Li wouldn't certify him well enough to leave the resources of Sickbay and stay out of bed for another ten days. T'Laren showed up for a few hours each day to talk to Q. By the time he was ready to leave, he had begun to look forward to the trip. T'Laren had demonstrated that she was an entertaining conversational partner, if a bit dangerously insightful, and she actually seemed to care about him somewhat, without being sappy like Medellin. Or secretly despising him and trying unsuccessfully to hide it, also like Medellin. If T'Laren despised him, she hid it with the skill of Vulcan discipline; but he didn't think she did, as he doubted a Vulcan could fake the subtle signs he was registering that she did, in fact, give a damn about him personally. He had come to the tentative conclusion that for now, at least, he could trust her.
So he had begun to let himself hope again, and with hope came a certain lifting of the numbness. When Commodore Anderson came to say goodbye, on the day he was to leave, he found to his surprise that he was glad she'd thought to do it.
"I can't say I'll particularly miss you," she said, "and I doubt you'll much miss me. But for what it's worth... I haven't enjoyed seeing you in this much pain, and I hope that you manage to find whatever happiness you can out of life. If for no other reason than that you're a lot less obnoxious that way."
Q grinned. "I love you too, Eleanor."
"I wouldn't go that far."
"Neither would I." He sobered. "For whatever this is worth... I realize I haven't exactly been the most pleasant of guests to have around. Undoubtedly you'll be a lot happier with me gone. And I can't say I've enjoyed myself here, but... I do know that isn't really your fault. And I am sorry. More or less." He smiled again, caustically. "Which doesn't mean I'd do any of it differently, mind you."
"No, of course not." She shook her head. "Get up to your damned ship and off my starbase, Q."
"Without saying goodbye to all my friends? What do you think I am?"
Anderson snorted. "Seriously," Q said, "I'm stuck here for at least another hour or so. Dr. Li wants me back in the torture chamber. Something about a last-minute examination to make sure I don't collapse on my way to the ship."
"You'd better get going, then."
Medellin came by an hour later, right after Li had finished. Q sighed inwardly. Now she was going to be maudlin, count on it.
She didn't disappoint him. "I'm sorry your time here has been so awful," she said. "And I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you."
"I'm sorry too," Q said blandly.
Medellin blinked. "For what?"
"That you couldn't do more for me."
Medellin opened her mouth and closed it resolutely without saying anything. She took a deep breath. "You have to keep doing this?" she asked. "On your last day here?"
"What do you want? Me to forgive you for being a terrible counselor? Fine, I forgive you. It's not your fault you're so inept."
"Now that's exactly the sort of thing that you should work on," Medellin said in a forcedly calm voice. "I'm trying to apologize. You could be gracious about it."
"I could be," Q agreed, "but I'm not. Okay, I take it back. You're not completely inept. You're just completely inept at dealing with me. Probably because you despise me. Am I right?"
For the first time in three years, Medellin finally lost her temper- perhaps because she was no longer his counselor, and no longer had to be nice to him. "Why shouldn't I despise you?" she exploded. "All I'm doing is trying to help you, and you just keep attacking me and attacking me! What's there to like about someone who does that? How could you possibly expect me to help you when you keep saying things like that?"
Q smiled broadly. "Oh, Nian, you don't know how I've wanted to hear that from you," he said happily. "You should get angry more often, you know. People would respect you more."
Medellin blinked. "You-"
"Thanks for trying to help," he said, with genuine sincerity. "I really do forgive you for everything- you did at least try, which is more than most of them did. And try not to be so easily intimidated. Get some backbone and maybe you'll get onto a real starship someday."
Because he knew it would confuse her utterly, he hugged her briefly. Then he left for the docking area and Ketaya, whistling. Someday Medellin might figure it out.
T'Laren met him at the airlock. "You have everything?"
"I left most of my antiques to whoever wants them," he said. "I don't think I'll need them anymore. Everything else should've been brought aboard some time ago."
"It was." She extended a hand to him. The brief walk had tired him, and he was glad for the support. "Let's get going, then."
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