Only Human

Part IV: Ketaya

Author's note/content warnings: This was never exactly a fluffy story, but things get much darker in this chapter. Contains torture, attempted rape, dubcon, noncon/mind control, and graphic, gory violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Q sat quietly, fuming with impotent rage and fear, kneeling by T'Laren's fallen body. She was breathing, at least; the Ferengi had said they'd only stunned her, but the sight of her chest rising and falling slightly, the terribly quiet sound of her breath, reassured him more than words from people who might have motive to lie.

From the computer readouts, he could tell that they were moving away from Yamato at high warp. Without being able to address the computer, he couldn't get any more detail than that. It infuriated him that the Ferengi had locked him out of the computer—he hadn't bothered shoring up the security of the system, because it had just been himself and T'Laren. Stupid, stupid. And not nearly paranoid enough. What made him think he and T'Laren had the resources and experience to protect him? He should have stayed on Starbase 56. What were the fools on Yamato thinking of, to let the Ferengi invade Ketaya while it was still docked with Yamato?

The ironic thing was that if he could only get access to the keyboard, he could get everything back. He was fairly sure they couldn't have rooted out his back door—but if his voiceprint had been disabled to the computer, the only way to get in to his back door would be through the keyboard. And there was a computer-linked padd right in front of him, attached to the captain's chair, which currently was occupied by DaiMon Dar, and if the damnable Ferengi weren't pointing their phasers at him, he could reach it, log in and lock them out. That, however, wasn't going to happen.

T'Laren stirred slightly, her head lifting the smallest amount. Q let out a deep breath he hadn't been aware of holding. She was coming around, which meant she hadn't been badly hurt in the first place. He lifted his head to address the DaiMon. "I do hope you realize you've sealed your fate by doing this," he said. "The Federation won't take kindly to you kidnapping one of their most valuable resources. I hope you like the cuisine they serve at penal colonies, because that's most likely where you'll end your days."

DaiMon Dar laughed. "You're very naive, human," he said, mispronouncing "human" as "hyuu-mon" the way most Ferengi did. "Your precious Federation will do nothing. If they're willing to be the highest bidder, we'll demand from them a pardon signed into the contract before we hand you over. And if the Romulans or Cardassians or some other party are the highest bidders, we'll have them contract to offer us sanctuary from the Federation."

"You know I don't know why someone hasn't annihilated your pathetic species. You run around kidnapping innocent people, exploiting lower-tech civilizations and stealing things from your more intelligent betters. You're laughable as fighters and even more so as scientists, and there's no question but that if any of the great powers wanted to destroy you, it could be done easily. You're not going to be able to blackmail the leaders of the real powers in this quadrant with sordid sexual secrets forever, you know. Sooner or later, there'll be a leader who either isn't corrupt or gets his vice quotient satisfied without any need to turn to you for aid, and then you'll be crushed like the small annoying insects you are."

"How dare you!" one of the Ferengi- Q recognized him as the one who'd been ludicrously overprotective of Yalit when she came aboard, though he couldn't remember the man's name- snarled, and jumped to his feet.

"Ril, he's just trying to upset us. Stand down," Dar said. "You've got a big mouth on you, human. You might want to watch it. Don't forget you're our prisoner."

T'Laren sat up. "Don't... antagon... ize them, Q," she said slowly, her speech slow and slightly slurred as she came up from stun.

He was desperately relieved to see her recovering, but didn't dare show it in front of the Ferengi. Q contented himself by quickly squeezing her hand. "What can they do to me, T'Laren?" he asked. "They can't very well sell me into slavery if they've beaten my head in, now can they?"

"There's a lot of things we could do to you that wouldn't damage your value," Dar said. "Though I figure a soft, pampered human wouldn't know much about that."

"Get it through your bony skull, Ferengi. My humanity is a biological accident- by name and by species, I am Q." The truth was that he wasn't Q any more, and probably should have changed his name, but it was too huge, too painful a step. He'd had a million names in a million languages, but the vast majority of them had been translations of the untranslatable name of his species. The idea of breaking that tie, of being anything else, bothered him deeply. He stood up. "And I'm hardly soft and pampered. Even if we ignore for the moment the fact that I've been watching you mortals torture each other since before your solar system formed, I've survived no less than twenty-one assassination attempts. I realize you think that the mere fact that you've taken me captive is supposed to have me on the floor groveling in terror, but frankly I've seen any number of terrifying things in my tenure as a mortal, and you don't even make the top fifty."

"I'm sure we could find something that would frighten you," the DaiMon said.

Q was sure of it too, which was why he was working so hard to convince them that they couldn't. Having been terrorized numerous times by experts at it turned out to have some advantages after all; he was well aware that he was alone but for a half-stunned Vulcan, surrounded by captors with phasers, and probably a lot more than these five somewhere else in the ship or in the Ferengi vessel. He would be a fool not to be afraid. But he wasn't going to let them see that, and his extensive experience with being in frightening situations was making it much easier for him to pretend to be in control. "Oh, please. I pick fights with Klingons for fun. Do you seriously believe you could do anything, short of causing me the sort of severe and permanent harm that would drastically lower my price, that I'd even notice?" For the first time in his life he wished he knew Ferengi better. The kind of bravado he was displaying would impress Klingons and Romulans into leaving him alone, he knew, and would probably inspire the Cardassians to go out of their way to disprove his statement. He didn't know how the Ferengi thought in matters of war, though, whether it was more important to them to coerce obedience or to respect bravery.

"So you wouldn't mind if we fed you good healthy bugs for your meals."

"Not if you don't mind me going on a hunger strike."

"I would advise that you do not attempt to make life unpleasant for Q, DaiMon, at least not moreso than the circumstances require," T'Laren said, getting to her feet. "He is much better than anyone else at making life unpleasant for others, and he is also perfectly capable of harming himself to spite you."

"Female, if I'd wanted your advice I would have beaten it out of you already," the DaiMon said, with such casual vitriol that it shocked Q. He'd known intellectually that the Ferengi didn't consider women to be people, but the thought of anyone casually dismissing T'Laren's intelligence and personhood with such an unwarrantedly vicious remark, just because she happened to be female, enraged him on a visceral level.

"Your ability to judge fellow sapients as unworthy to talk to solely on the basis of their possession of uteri is nothing short of staggering in the stupidity it displays. Sooner or later you're going to torque off some Romulan Commander and she'll blow up your planet, you know."

"I'm not interested in speaking to your female," Dar said.

"And I'm not interested in speaking to you, but we all have to make our little sacrifices." Q considered. "I know what you could do to me to make me quake in my boots. You could threaten to breathe on me. I think the stench of your unhygienic teeth would paralyze a Breen, and they have excellent air filtration systems in their environmental suits."

"What about a neurowhip?" the pilot said to the DaiMon.

"That's an excellent idea, Bej."

He had to chase them off that one fast. "That's an incredibly stupid idea. Direct neural stimulation? Hello? Has it occurred to you that my only value is my brain? Damage that, and you'd be lucky to get a carton of cigarettes in trade for me."

"This is a pointless exercise," T'Laren said in her coldest voice. "Your objective is not to torment Q, but to make money from him. Lock us away where Q can no longer insult you and your crew, and the problem is solved."

"Didn't I tell you to keep your mouth shut, female?" DaiMon Dar said. "Women are only good for one thing." And then he smiled, a horrible crooked smile full of bad teeth. "There we go," he said. "I know what will make you think twice about insulting us, Q." He stood up and walked over to T'Laren. "We don't need to touch you. We have her."

"I am a Vulcan. It is ludicrous to think you can influence me, or Q, by threatening to torture me."

"Oh, I'm not thinking about torturing you, female. I had a much more pleasant use for you in mind." He grasped one of her breasts, squeezing it. T'Laren stepped back against the wall, her arm raising, and then the pilot, who had also been the one to stun her in the first place, pointed a phaser at her.

"Don't move, female," he said. "Unless you'd rather I stunned you first." He was openly leering at her, but his hold on the phaser looked steady. At least, steady enough that Q saw no way to get it away from him, or that T'Laren could without getting stunned, even with the fighting skills he'd seen from her. He felt close to overwhelmed with helpless rage, that they could do this, that they would treat her this way. His only friend in the universe, and he couldn't protect her. He'd been gambling that he could intimidate them out of harming him, and he'd won, and lost.

"This is ridiculous," T'Laren said, looking down at the Ferengi manhandling her as if he were an annoying small child tugging at her shirt. "You might as well copulate with a rubber doll for all the stimulus I will give you. Do you truly think you can harm either myself or Q by such a foolish thing?"

"She's got a point," Q drawled, grateful to T'Laren for giving him the opening. If they didn't think he cared, and they didn't think it'd be fun to assault her, they wouldn't do it. "I hadn't heard the Ferengi were so desperate they'd sleep with Vulcans. Can't you afford a good whore? I'm sure your mother must have the names of some good ones from her professional association. T'Laren hasn't got emotions to care what you do to her, and if she doesn't care why would you think I would?"

Ril had gone absolutely purple at the remark about Yalit, and even Dar, who seemed to be better at controlling his emotions, had narrowed his eyes menacingly at Q. Then he smiled. "Oh, she'll care," he said, and leered. "We have on board a fine supply of Romulan aphrodisiac. What do they call that stuff? 'Far togan', wasn't it, Gon?"

The fifth Ferengi, the one that hadn't yet spoken at all, nodded. "Far togan, that's the name of it."

"The Roms swear by it. We hear it gets their Vulcan cousins even more riled up." He ran his hands over T'Laren's breasts again. "If she auditions well, we might even be able to sell her to a brothel for a high price. Not as high as we'll get for you, of course, but then she is only a female."

This was very bad. Q wasn't exactly sure what they were talking about- well, a drug that was supposed to make Vulcans sexually responsive, that was obvious, but not the details. But he could read T'Laren, and she'd gone into that same absolute ice mode he'd seen from her when she'd threatened to throw him out the airlock and they'd had that vicious argument afterward. She was absolutely still, her face an empty mask, nothing alive in her at all but a pair of eyes like black ice, glittering. Q didn't know whether it meant she was terrified, enraged, or both. Either way he wasn't going to let it happen.

But he didn't know what to do. If he made empty threats, declaring that they would suffer if they touched her, they'd know it was getting to him, and they'd go ahead with it to punish him. If he groveled, he'd feed their desire to see him humiliated, and they'd go ahead anyway to humiliate him the worse. If he pretended he didn't care... they were Ferengi. They didn't see T'Laren except as an attractive thing, an object to be used for their pleasure, and if they had a way to break her Vulcan control and humiliate her while raping her, they'd do it because they thought it was fun, regardless of whether or not Q seemed to care. He felt lightheaded with fear and rage, and he wanted to grab the DaiMon and rip the man's ears off with his bare hands like the most barbaric sort of primitive.

And doing that would get him stunned immediately and wouldn't save T'Laren. He needed something else, he needed something else...

"Let her go," he said, a plan forming in his mind. "She is my employee. I won't tolerate you manhandling her like this."

"What do you know! Something that actually bothers the great Q!" the DaiMon said. "Tell me, human, what bothers you worse: the thought of us having her, or the thought of us having her first?"

"The gross disrespect to my person in abusing my possessions without my permission, actually," Q said. "I mean it, Ferengi. Let her go, or I'll destroy your pretty visions of vast sums of latinum with a thought."

"Oh, and how exactly are you going to do that?"

"Simple." Q smiled coldly. "I'll kill myself."

"With what? Your bare hands?"

"My bare thoughts, actually, but close enough." He sat down on the floor again, taking a meditative position. "You may know that Vulcans know how to stop their own hearts through meditative discipline. It's not generally known as a skill of humans, but as I pointed out, I am not truly human. There's no ability petty little mortal minds can encompass that my mind can't manage, once taught to do it. And in order to give me a means of protecting myself from being tortured by all those assassins I mentioned that, unlike you, actually do frighten me, T'Laren here trained me in the ability."

"Q, no!" T'Laren sounded genuinely frightened for him, an especially enormous contrast given the intensity of her previous masking. "Do not do this for me." He hoped she was faking it, that she knew this was complete and utter claptrap. How could she not know? She'd never taught him any such thing. But she had taught him how to slow his heart rate through meditation.

"Sorry, darling, but this isn't about you. I refuse to live as a captive of anyone who shows so little respect for my wishes."

"This is ridiculous!" the DaiMon exploded. "You can't possibly intend to kill yourself because we wanted a little fun with your female!"

"Of course not," Q said. "I intend to kill myself because I despise you, and this is the absolute worst thing I can think of to do to you." He smiled mockingly. "Of course, you could probably persuade me to stop by telling me you'll leave T'Laren alone and accede to my other demands if I generously refrain from doing myself in until you've had a chance to sell me, but I think you're too stupid to do that." Deep cleansing breath. Again. What he was preparing to do would be difficult in the face of all these distractions; he was good at meditation and biofeedback control because it was very similar to Q control over their own minds and physical forms when they had them, but the fact that this body could experience pain and fear was very disruptive to attaining the proper state.

"You're bluffing. You wouldn't kill yourself over something this trivial!"

Q focused on Dar. "Didn't do your research, did you, rodent boy?" The mocking smile, lost as he had prepared for an inward focus, came back full strength. "I drank a bottle of acid less than two months ago because I was angry at being forced to try to teach Klingons. I have very, very little interest in maintaining this pathetic sham of an existence, and most especially I dislike being a prisoner with no control over my own fate. I've been a god, Ferengi; the joys of mortal survival, such as they are, pale in comparison. So yes, I am perfectly willing to kill myself to spite you. You should have listened to T'Laren." He closed his eyes.

"You can't do this!"

"Watch me."

He shut out anything further the Ferengi might have to say. For this bluff to work he had to focus entirely on his objective. He leaned his head back against the bulkhead. As he breathed deeply, he focused on the sound of his own heartbeat, transmitted from his back to his ear through the bulkhead. It was the sound of mortality, the sound of time passing and his own dependence on that time, every throb binding him to a life that was barely living and counting down the time until even that was gone.

Slow. He was Q, even if he was human; he should be able to control this shell, bend it to his will. Slow. Imagine the net of neurons firing through this body, imagine the electrochemical impulses, the sodium channels opening and closing and the muscles responding, contract, expand, contract. Slow. The universe reduced down to the pulsing sound, slowing, slowing. No fear, no pain, no adrenal shock here in the depths of the mind. He was bodiless again, he was everywhere in this small universe, expanding like a gas to fill the space around him and there was nothing here but himself and the sound, slowing.

And then pain completely broke his concentration. He blinked, dizzy. Light flooded in, and for moments he wasn't sure of where he was or what surrounded him.

"Q. Come back. They've agreed to your demands. You must come back."

Q blinked again. T'Laren was in front of him. "My... demands?"

"Yes. You don't need to kill yourself. They'll agree to leave us unmolested."

Now he was remembering. "But it was so nice," he said deliberately, sounding wistful. It was true, but he was only admitting it to give himself better negotiating advantage. "So peaceful... no rodents with bad teeth. Maybe I'll go back there anyway."

"Q, you cannot. Please." She raised her hand, and he realized she was the one who'd hit him to bring him out of it.

"No hitting. I'm awake." He looked up at several rather shaken-looking Ferengi. "So you've decided to be rational. How delightful for you. Though I'm still not sure I'm not getting the raw end of the deal."

"If you live, we will not touch your female," Dar said. "If you kill yourself, you leave her free for us. Is that what you want, human?"

Q considered. "While under most circumstances I expect T'Laren to take care of herself, I'm really entirely too nauseated by the thought that you people actually mate with anyone, let alone an employee of mine, to tolerate the thought. So I suppose I'll live." He got to his feet. "I don't trust you people, so I am going to insist that you allow T'Laren to room in my suite, where I can keep an eye on her and make sure you're keeping your deformed paws off her. And I want keyboard access to the computers, so I don't expire of boredom."

"You can have your female in your rooms; where else would she go?" Dar said, sneering. "But you can't have computer access. Mother was very explicit about that."

"And you still take orders from your mommy?"

Surprisingly, Dar didn't appear angry over that. "The Lady Yalit is the greatest Ferengi woman ever to live, with a mind for business the full equal of any man's, including the Grand Nagus. I follow my mother's instructions because she's brought wealth and power to our family, and I'd be a fool to think I could do as well. She says you're too dangerous to be given any computer access." He smiled toothily. "You should be flattered, human. The Lady Yalit doesn't consider many people bright enough to be a danger to her."

"I am thrilled at the honor of being seen as intelligent by a decrepit old prostitute, believe you me."

"You should be." Dar motioned at two of his men. "Antek, Bej, escort our guests to their room and lock them in."

Control. She wanted to rip their ears off for daring to threaten her with farr t'gahn, for manhandling her as they had, for looking through her and treating her like she was nothing. She wanted to hug Q for saving her from what would have been a fairly horrible death, had the Ferengi gone through with it. But she had to maintain her facade of control- she couldn't give them the ammunition to know how badly they'd frightened and enraged her.

Once they were in the cell, however, she did hug Q. They might well be being monitored by now, but that was all the more reason to come close enough to him to speak without being overheard. She had to tell him what the stakes were, since it seemed only his ability to bluff was saving her.

"What was that for?" Q asked, a bit bewildered-sounding.

"You saved my life," she said, almost whispering in his ear. "The drug they spoke of would have killed me."

"Killed you?" Q's eyes hardened. "I think that when they sell me off to whoever, I'm going to make it a term of whatever agreement they make me sign that these Ferengi get their ears sawed off with a dull knife. I thought they were talking about raping you. Which is bad enough, don't mistake me, but not even I thought they were so psychotically misogynist as to kill you."

"They wouldn't know. Vulcans do not speak of such things, and the effect on Romulans is different." She breathed deeply, performing a mental exercise to try to calm herself. It wasn't working very well.

"A drug that makes Romulans drop drawers for anything in sight kills Vulcans?"

She opened her mouth, intending to explain how even though women didn't generally undergo pon farr without being bonded, they did have the triggers in their brain, and the Romulan aphrodisiac farr t'gahn worked by triggering the cycle. And that it would require sex with a mindmelded partner, and Ferengi were immune to telepathy, so she couldn't meld with them. They would rape her, and she would need it, long for it, beg for it, but without the mindmeld the cycle would never end, and she would die, mad with need.

But she couldn't say any of that. She'd internalized too much of the Vulcan shame of the pon farr. She might have been able to tell Q- she'd told him something of Vulcan cycles already- but not when the Ferengi might be listening. Vulcans didn't speak of the cycle to outsiders. She'd told Q when she was telling him about murdering Soram- she'd already made the decision, then, to lay herself completely bare to him, to tell him the most shameful thing she could think of about herself. Speaking of Vulcan biology was little, next to that. But she would not, could not, so shame herself in front of the Ferengi. Their hearing was excellent, and with computer assistance, even whispering might not keep them from overhearing her.

T'Laren stepped back, releasing him. "I cannot... I can't discuss this any further, Q. But yes. A drug that makes Romulans feel desire, kills Vulcans. I cannot explain."

"Oh, come now. You've told me all sorts of outrageous things about your past, and your species, before. I hardly think-"

She interrupted before he could say anything too revealing. "Q, I must warn you. There is a good chance we are being monitored. I can speak of such things to you, but not when they might hear."

"Monitored?" He frowned. "Why do you think we're being monitored?"

"Because I had Lhoviri place monitors in this room, and the Ferengi may have found them by now."

"What?" He was on his feet, striding over to invade her personal space, in moments. "You know how I feel about monitors! How dare you invade my privacy like that?"

T'Laren put up a hand. "Calm yourself. I wanted the monitors in place because you were suicidal, but I didn't use them to invade your privacy. There was a life sign monitor which would register if you seemed to be in distress- cries for help, weakened life signs, that sort of thing- and I would only activate the room monitors to see and hear you if the life sign monitor indicated that you were in trouble. In fact the one time it did indicate you were having a problem, I found it faster to go to your room than to activate the monitors."

"That's not the point. You knew I would find such an invasion of my privacy unbearable, but you didn't care."

"No, not particularly. You'd just drunk a bottle of acid. If you remember correctly, Q, I was willing to do almost anything to ensure that you didn't try to kill yourself again. I was also concerned for invading assassins; though I can't imagine how anything could invade a ship traveling at warp without tripping all sorts of sensors, that doesn't mean it's not possible for any of your enemies, and I don't have a whole security staff here, only myself. I needed some way to know if you were in danger, from yourself or other threats."

"And now you've handed the Ferengi a marvelous tool to use against us. Good going, T'Laren."

"They might have bugged the room anyway."

He shook his head. "We're going to have a long talk about this when we get out of here. But if the Ferengi are monitoring us I really don't particularly feel like putting on a show for their entertainment. Are there monitors in the bathroom?"

"Only life-sign monitors. No sound or visual."

"Good. I'm going to wash up."

She sat down on the couch, trying to focus her mind, to rein in her emotions and achieve discipline again. This was rudely interrupted by Q stomping out of the bathroom. "The replicators don't work! How am I supposed to get cleansing solvents if the replicators don't work?"

"You can use a sonic shower without cleansing solvents if you have to," T'Laren said.

"Certainly, if I want to stink to high heaven. I imagine Vulcans haven't much sense of smell, but unfortunately, humans aren't so blessed."

"Vulcan women have much better senses of smell than human, actually. It's simply a matter of ignoring unpleasantness."

"Well, whoop-de-doo for Vulcans, then, but I don't have the ability to simply 'ignore unpleasantness'."

"We should check to see if we can get food out of the main replicator."

"Mm, yes. That could be a big problem." He stormed over to the replicator. "Cheese sandwich." Nothing happened. "Damn these Ferengi. What do they expect us to eat?"

"They may bring us food."

"If they feed me bugs, I will go on a hunger strike. I won't have bugs in my room. Dead ones, live ones, I don't care. I won't have them." She remembered him telling her that since being attacked by the Maierlen assassin's swarm, he had a phobia of insects.

"You are letting them have too much control over you," T'Laren said. "By antagonizing them as you have, you've inspired them to find ways to humiliate you. Now there are too many factors they have control over, and you have only one threat to hold against them- you cannot use it on everything, or it will lose its power."

"You mean that if I kill myself over bad food, there's nothing to stop them from molesting you."

"Actually, if you kill yourself, I will as well. I did train you in the ability, although you did promise me you would not use it... though under the circumstances I can't say I don't understand the motivation. It is unreasonable to assume I would not myself be capable of the same feat." T'Laren really wasn't entirely certain how Q had managed to so thoroughly bluff the Ferengi- they'd howled in terror when their tricorders indicated that his heart rate was dropping, and had immediately given in. She knew perfectly well that that was the limit of Q's ability, but somehow the utter confidence and arrogance with which Q had proclaimed his ability to kill himself, coupled with his incredible value to their Ferengi captors, must have thoroughly spooked them. If they were listening in, and they very likely were, T'Laren wanted to reinforce Q's bluff and protect herself at the same time. "But it is still ridiculous to kill yourself over bad food."

"Ridiculous to you, maybe. I despise eating at the best of times." Q started banging on the door. "Hey! Hey, I need some service, here!"

"Do you think that will do any good?"

"If no one responds, we'll know there are no guards, which would mean the Ferengi are bigger idiots than even I thought, and we can pick the lock and walk out at our leisure." He banged on the door again. "I demand replicator access!"

The door opened, and a Ferengi with leveled phaser- not a Ferengi T'Laren recognized- stepped into the room, just a single step. His eyes were focused on Q, but T'Laren could guess from his alert stance that he was probably just as aware of her location. Ferengi might not attach much value to women as people, but they knew better than to underestimate Vulcans of either sex. "What do you want?" he snapped.

"Replicator access," Q said.

"No," the Ferengi said, and started to step backward out of the room.

"How do you expect me to take a shower without cleaning solvents?" Q demanded.

"You need cleaning solvents?"

"And food. And changes of sheets for the bed. And depilator for my face. And a laundry list of items too long to name, so why don't you just be a good little rodent and give me replicator access?"

"No," the Ferengi said obstinately, and this time left the room despite Q's spluttering.

"Q, I think we'd be better off if you didn't call them rodents when you're asking them for favors," T'Laren said.

"Favors? I demand my basic rights as a sentient being!"

"But they have the power to grant them or not." She shook her head. "If you had not gone out of your way to antagonize and humiliate Yalit, we would not be in this situation. Do you learn nothing?"

"Don't you start with me," Q warned. "I didn't want to have an argument with you with our oh-so-charming hosts listening in. But don't push me."

"Don't push you? Both our lives, and certainly our comfort, is at stake. They won't listen to me, or I could play diplomat and smooth things over. But they don't even see me as a person. You are the only one who can win concessions from them, and if you insult and abuse them, we won't get anything we want or need from them."

"I know what I'm doing, T'Laren."

"Do you? What good has any of what you've done accomplished? You were nearly tortured, I was nearly raped and killed, and both of us were confronted with the possibility of being forced to suicide to avoid such fates. I don't see how any of this has been constructive!"

"Don't shout at me."

"I am not shouting."

"Tsk, tsk. Bad Vulcan. Your temper is showing."

She was possessed of a sudden profound desire to smack Q. Which meant, unfortunately, that he was absolutely right- her temper was getting control of her. T'Laren took a deep calming breath. She was Vulcan. She would master her feelings. Never mind that she was a prisoner of beings who treated her as a complete non-person, sexually harassed her every chance they got and had shown willingness to rape her, trigger her Time, and thus kill her horribly, and the one person whose value to the Ferengi made them listen to him at all wanted to antagonize them into tormenting him. She would not feel fear. She was Vulcan and fear was illogical. "Very well, then. What possible value could your actions gain? If you have a plan, could you see fit to enlighten me?"

"Delighted to. Ever read O. Henry's 'Ransom of Red Chief?'"

Yes, she had. It was a story about kidnappers who took a little boy captive, only to find that the boy was such a monstrous brat that they ended up paying his parents to take him back. "Q, that will not work. The Ferengi are far too enamored of their profits."

"No, no, no. Of course they'll want to make money off me. But if they want to make it as quickly as possible-" he smirked- "that's to our advantage. We're deep enough in Federation space that it'll take a week or more to reach the kind of neutral space where they could easily hold an auction inviting representatives of all the great powers. So if they decide to sell me off before that point, it'll most likely be to the Federation. And if I make their lives as unpleasant as possible, then they'll be that much more motivated to sell me quickly." He grinned.

"You are overlooking the fact that they hold power over us. If you make their lives unpleasant, they'll take it out on us."

"If I grovel, they'll also take it out on us. It's too late to play nice, T'Laren. I'll admit that I probably could have been more circumspect about my behavior with Yalit in the first place, but then, who would have foreseen that a supposedly civilized being would do this? But having done that, we're no longer in any kind of position that playing nice with them will get us what we want. They're going to abuse us whether we treat them deferentially or insultingly. So our best strategy, given that they're going to abuse us anyway, is to give it back to them as much as we can."

"But we can't do anything. Your usual repertoire of sarcasm isn't exactly the equivalent of refusing to feed us, or assaulting us..."

"T'Laren." His expression grew serious abruptly. "I won't let them touch you. I have a weapon I can invoke if they try, and I don't think they'll risk losing their precious latinum. You don't have to worry, all right? I will get them to feed us something edible, and I will get them to give us replicator access or the toiletries we need, and I will keep them from touching you. I can't promise that my plan is going to work, but I can promise you that I won't let them do what they threatened to. No Ferengi would put the kind of profit I represent at risk for the opportunity to humiliate a woman."

"I'm not worried about that," T'Laren said, lying, because of course that was exactly what she was worried about. Q didn't know what it was like to lose his mind, to be totally at the mercy of his body. He thought he did, since for him any demands of the body were overwhelming, but truly, he knew nothing of it at all. And he had some experience with being a nonperson, but he was always a valuable nonperson. Not like this. Not like... like she had no value except as a walking masturbatory toy. T'Laren was quite experienced with, and capable of handling, broader male attention than where her interests lay, but she'd never been anywhere where anyone with power over her could treat her like a toy to be used. The man who'd raped her had done so as an assault, quick and brutal, physically pinning her where her superior strength was less of a concern than her relatively slight mass, taking great care to make sure she couldn't threaten him. He hadn't been able to walk right up to her and fondle her breasts and brag about what he was going to do to her with her helpless to stop him. He hadn't talked through her. He hadn't ignored her and treated her like she wasn't there. It had been bad, but it hadn't been like what the Ferengi had done, and threatened to do. He hadn't been able to threaten to make her lose control.

"So what are you worried about?"

"That they will think of something to hurt us that won't be worth killing ourselves over, and they'll keep doing it."

"They probably will. Not much we can do about that, except make their lives hell for it."

"But if we negotiated with them- if we back down, and stop trying to make our lives hell, they'd be far more inclined to do as we ask."

He shook his head. "They won't listen to you, T'Laren, so we're doing it my way whether you like it or not." Q turned away. "I'm going to try to take that shower. At least I don't need to be completely filthy."

She sat staring at the wall, trying to meditate and regain control over herself, for several long minutes as he ran the sonic shower.

After a few minutes, she stood up. Meditation wasn't working. She needed it desperately, but couldn't quiet her mind enough to enter a meditative state. Instead, she decided to prepare to take a shower after Q was done. With the controls set properly, so that the high-pitched whine of a badly set sonic shower was absent, she could find them quite relaxing, although nothing was as pleasurable and decadent as a hot water shower. She focused on the thought of a relaxing sonic shower, vibrating her tense muscles, brushing away the dead skin and dirt of the day-

-she had no clothes.

Her daydream about showers came to an abrupt halt. She couldn't gather up clean clothes to change into after a shower- she didn't have any. This was Q's room. Unlike the suite they'd shared on Yamato, her own quarters didn't adjoin this room in any way. The large walk-in closet was stuffed full of clothes, but they were Q's clothes, and hadn't a prayer of fitting her. And she doubted there was any way to persuade the Ferengi to give her clothes. For one thing, their culture mandated that women go naked, and for another she doubted they'd resist the temptation to inflict such a great humiliation on her. Without access to the clothing cleanser on the lower deck, she couldn't clean these clothes, and without access to the replicator she couldn't make new ones.

T'Laren fought down a rising tide of panic as she inventoried what they did have. She could sleep on the couch in the living room part of Q's suite, but there were no blankets, and the temperature of Ketaya was human-comfortable, not so pleasant for a sleeping or meditating Vulcan. No food. Nothing to clean anything with. There were books aplenty- Q had stored most of his antiques in the storage rooms on Deck 4 of Ketaya, but he had kept his book collection in his bedroom- but no active padds, not without computer access. It was a two-room suite, luxurious enough for one person to spend time in when he also had the freedom of the ship, but for two to be trapped together...

No. No. She would get control. This was not the most unpleasant captivity she'd endured- she would not complain that it was too cold and she had no change of clothes. That was absurd and unworthy of a former Starfleet officer, let alone a Vulcan. And it wasn't what was really bothering her, anyway. What was really bothering her was that she had no control over the situation and she was being held prisoner by people who didn't consider her sentient and she had to rely on Q of all people to protect her, when she was fairly certain that his tactics would only make matters worse.

Q stuck his head out the bathroom door. "T'Laren! Get me a bathrobe!"

"Why didn't you bring one in with you?"

"I forgot the replicators don't work. Well, I didn't forget exactly, but I didn't think about the fact that I wouldn't be able to get a bathrobe when I needed it. Come on, T'Laren, be a dear. I have no desire to parade around the room in the altogether while I'm trying to dig up something to wear."

She went through the clothes in his closet, finding a dark purple velour bathrobe, as well as things she didn't really want to dwell on, like spandex pants covered in shiny sequins, a shirt made of black leather strips covered with pointed metal studs, or a leopard-print loincloth. T'Laren carried the robe over to the door of the bathroom and handed it in without going close enough to the bathroom to see inside.

"We may have a problem," T'Laren said as Q sauntered out in his robe. "I have no clothes."

"No clothes?" His voice carried more startlement than she expected. He looked at her. "Oh, you mean no other clothes. For a moment I thought I was going to have to have some words with some Ferengi."

"No other clothes. That's correct."

"Oh, we can fix that. Let me just get dressed."

"Fix it? How do you propose to do that?"

"We have plenty of clothes, they just don't fit you. So we'll have to adjust them." He rummaged through his closet, and started tossing things on the floor. "These shirts should fit you as tunics. We'll have to find you an attractive belt of some kind."

She picked up a shirt and held it to her chest. "I appreciate the gesture, but this would be shorter on me than a 23rd century Starfleet uniform."

"Oh, we'll get you some pants, never fear. The last thing I want you to do is give the Ferengi a thrill. I'd give you an evening gown or two, but I'm afraid there's no way I could adjust that well enough to keep it from falling off your chest."

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. "An evening gown? You own one?"

"Chère T'Laren, I own several."

"May I ask why?"

Q started laughing. "Oh dear. Have I landed on another of your illogical cultural taboos again?"

"It's not one of mine," T'Laren said shortly. She wasn't awfully fond of being laughed at during the best of times, and under the current circumstances it seemed like salt in the wound. "It is, however, a very powerful human taboo, and likely to cause you a great deal of trouble for violating it."

His grin got bigger. "I know. That's why I did it." Q stuck his head in the clothes again and started pulling out pants and shirts and tossing them on the ground. "I'll admit that I'm entirely fed up with humanity's stupid taboos, and that, as I am male for good and logical reasons that have nothing to do with feeling 'manly' or whatever humanity's idiotic notion of masculinity is, I find it quite offensive that they would try to prohibit me from doing anything on the basis of my gender. But, you see, there are laws against that. They don't try to prohibit me from doing anything; they attempt to exercise social control, and I think you know how well that works on me. And I have to admit that, if I'd realized when I still had my powers how much it bothers humans when men dress in traditional female costume and how hilariously inept they are at hiding how much it bothers them, despite the fact that by their own cultural ideals it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference, I would have dressed in drag for Picard at least once. I think that could have been very entertaining."

He looked back at T'Laren. "It's the simplest thing. One dresses in an exotic evening gown with high heels and a stuffed bra to make the line fall correctly, and every human one has to deal with either thinks it's hilarious, or is utterly shocked and bothered. And they can't do anything about it because their laws guarantee that men and women have absolute equality." Q returned to his search for clothes. "Poor Eleanor couldn't throw me in the brig for attending conferences in drag with the idiots she inflicted on me... she couldn't even reprimand me, because by law I had every right to wear women's clothing. It was delightfully funny. Of course, the third time I did it everyone had figured out how to hide their reactions, which made it much less entertaining, and when I tried to wear 20th century gigolo pants Anderson found some sort of statute mandating that civilian employees of Starfleet must dress professionally, which meant that clothing designed to be sexually provocative could be forbidden." He pulled out a deep red two-piece suit with black trim. "This'll do for me. As soon as I come back, we'll try to fit some of these pants to you."

"Q, you are significantly taller than me, have wider hips, and your pants are cut for a man. How can we possibly get any of them to fit short of mutilating them and resewing them together?"

"O ye of little faith. Just watch."

He retreated to the bathroom, and returned with a small device, similar to a tricorder. "Hold still. Let me take your measurements." He walked around her with the tricorder extended. "There we go. That'll work."

"What will?"

Q knelt down on the floor. "Watch."

He lifted a pair of pants and began to fold the fabric, making lengthwise folds of two centimeters wide or less, and pressing them down. To T'Laren's surprise, the folds held almost invisibly. "I didn't expect to shrink, so I'm afraid everyone will be able to see where I rolled your hems up," he said.

"What did you just do?"

"Try them on. I want to see if it worked before I set up any others."

Puzzled, she peered inside the pants. It seemed that Q had somehow managed to create small folds in the pants to decrease their width, and made them hold. She carried them into the bathroom and tried them on. They weren't comfortable- the folds inside pressed against her skin, and the crotch was far lower than her actual groin- but they stayed on her legs and didn't drag on the floor. She left the bathroom. "How did you do that?"

"Perfect! It looks quite splendid on you."

"I have no interest in looking splendid. How did you do that?"

"Internal polarized magnetic fibers. Most of my clothing is tailored, not replicated, and it was tailored when I first became human. When I started losing weight, I didn't want my clothes to sag, but I didn't want to admit to Anderson that I needed my clothes adjusted, and I knew if I went to a tailor it would get back to Anderson. So I had all my clothes impregnated with polarized magnetic fibers, so I could adjust them myself if need be. Of course I never expected to have to adjust them this much, but I had it done symmetrically so that it wouldn't change the way the clothes hang, so I was able to get them adjusted for you."

"Can the folds be made on the outside rather than the inside? They are getting in my way."

"Well, yes, but you'd look ridiculous."

"I really don't care how I look, Q."

"Fine, fine. I'll fold them on the outside. If you want to look absurd that's your prerogative."

The door slid open then, and a Ferengi- not one they'd seen before- entered with a pair of bowls. He sneered. "Here's food for you and your female, human," he said.

From the smell, T'Laren could already tell this was a humiliation ploy. Q walked over, glanced in the bowls, and stepped back. "That's disgusting. I'm not eating that."

The Ferengi grinned broadly. "It's good Ferengi meal grubs! There's nothing wrong with it, human. Have a taste." He set the bowls down and grabbed a handful of the grubs, waving them at Q's face. "Should I give them to your female to chew for you?"

Q was looking decidedly pale. "Get those things away from me!"

She didn't know how severe his phobia of bugs was or what it would lead him to do, but despite the fact that she felt he was practically bringing everything that could happen to them down on himself, she didn't want him to suffer, or to reveal too much of his fear of insect-like things to the Ferengi, who'd use it against him. T'Laren stepped up and retrieved the bowls from the floor. "Put the grubs in here."

"Are you really going to chew them for him, female?" the Ferengi asked mockingly, putting the grubs in the bowl.

"No." T'Laren carried the bowls to the bathroom and dumped the contents down the toilet. As they entered the tiny tube at the bottom, she pressed the fresher button, and the grubs were disintegrated by the waste reclamation system, transformed into raw matter to be reconstituted by the replicator system.

She returned with the bowls. "Q will not eat insects and I will not eat animal matter. If you wish him to survive until you can sell him, you will feed him food appropriate for humans."

"Grubworms are perfectly good food for humans," the Ferengi said snidely. "But... maybe we could work something out. I could bring some food you'd both like... if there was something in it for me."

Q's color was back. "Like what? We don't happen to have a large store of latinum on hand. I'd trade you some antiques, but frankly I can't imagine barbarians like you valuing them properly."

"I don't want anything from you, human." The Ferengi licked his lips. "I want your female. How about it? Tasty human food in exchange for a little tasty Vulcan?"

Very deliberately, T'Laren smiled. This was territory she was familiar with. If she could do what she'd done with Melor, she could certainly do what needed to be done here, get a weapon and escape. "We can make such arrangements, yes." She traced her own exposed ear with a fingertip. "I have heard that Ferengi ears are exquisitely... sensitive. Is that the case?"

"I'm going to throw up," Q announced. "T'Laren, food isn't worth this. I couldn't even eat it if you continue this disgusting display."

"I'll do what needs to be done for our survival," T'Laren said to him, then turned her attention back to the Ferengi.

"Oh, yes, very sensitive." The Ferengi licked his lips again. "I think we can come to an arrangement."

"Very well. Bring food, and I'll see what I can do for you."

The Ferengi shook his head. "No, no. Oo-mox first, then food."

"If you insist." She'd known, of course, that the Ferengi would insist on that. It made no difference- she wasn't after food right now. "Come in."

The Ferengi took two steps, and then another Ferengi appeared at the door. "Brill! Are you insane?"

Brill turned toward the newcomer. "What do you mean? Didn't you hear what she was offering?"

"Of course I heard, you idiot. She's lying! Do you really think a Vulcan's going to give you oo-mox? She's after your neck, not your lobes, you fool! She'll knock you unconscious and take your phaser!"

This was, of course, exactly what T'Laren had planned, and she felt a surge of irritation that the newcomer had interfered. "I assure you," she said coldly, "I had no such plans. Vulcans do not lie or practice deceit. I intended only an honest business transaction, acceptable by both our cultures, in order to obtain edible food for myself and my client."

"Then why don't you do it now?" the newcomer asked, brandishing a phaser at her. "Let's see if you'll go through with the transaction when there's a phaser that says you won't break your word."

"No. You have disparaged my honor as a Vulcan. I am no longer willing to do business with you."

"Oh, for the sake of everything that's holy," Q said disgustedly. "Listen up, you two. She's not giving anyone oo-mox because I said no. Instead, you are going to bring me edible food, or as soon as I get tired of being hungry, I'm going to kill myself. Am I making myself clear enough? And you don't touch T'Laren. I don't care what she tells you."

"If you can't control your woman, that's not our problem," Brill sneered.

"It's certainly going to be your problem if you lose your investment, isn't it? Now run off like good little rodents and get my food. And while you're at it, get cleaning solvents too."

"Come on, Brill," the other Ferengi said. "It was very funny, but we need to feed the human something he'll eat."

"I think he should pay us for his upkeep," Brill said. "Why should we feed him and take care of him for nothing?"

"Because he's worth latinum, you idiot. Now come on."

The Ferengi left. Q looked at T'Laren. "Did you really think that would work?"

"I thought it might well get us edible food, yes," T'Laren said blandly, willing him to remember that they might very well be monitored.

"Suuure." Q tossed the suit he'd already taken out back into his closet and started rummaging through his clothes again. "I'm going to get dressed. Amusing as that little interlude was, I really don't have any intention of continuing to entertain Ferengi in my bathrobe. And I want something nicer looking than that red thing."

By the time the Ferengi arrived with food, Q was dressed in one of his more imposing outfits, a black suede shirt and pants with a royal purple silk overcloak, and full makeup. T'Laren couldn't quite see the point- the Ferengi had walked in on him in nothing but a violet velour bathrobe, and probably had monitors in the room anyway, so they had certainly seen him out of his full sartorial armor, and T'Laren herself had seen him in pajamas in a hospital bed- but it seemed to make Q feel better.

The food proved to be a pitcher of milk and an omelette with bacon and cheese. This almost had to be deliberate. T'Laren took a glass of milk and watched as Q busily tucked into the omelette. At least he wasn't whining about the quality of the food.

He had eaten about a quarter of the available food before he looked up. "Aren't you eating?"

"Eggs and bacon are meat products," T'Laren said. "I can eat animal products that were originally derived with no death- dairy, primarily- but eggs and bacon are derived from the death of living things. I cannot eat such things."

Q rolled his eyes. "T'Laren, they're replicated. Nothing died to make this omelette, I assure you."

"I am aware of this. It doesn't matter. I cannot eat any of this."

"Look, eggs and bacon are hardly my favorite food, either. But we need to keep our strength up. Where's that relentless Vulcan practicality?"

"Strongly desiring to not become nauseous. I have not eaten meat in many years. Most replicators designed for humanoids produce partially pre-digested milk that humanoids can drink without gastric distress, but they don't do the same with meat products. I no longer have the ability to digest meat without becoming ill." And she had failed, or was barely managing to struggle by, on so many other aspects of being a proper Vulcan, but following the dietary restrictions was something she could do.

"Damn." He put his fork down. "They planned this, didn't they? They knew Vulcans can't eat meat products, and they didn't want to risk me, so they deliberately gave us something I can eat and you can't. I'm going to have to have words with them." He started to stand. She caught his arm.

"No. It's all right, I can fast for days without losing my strength. I don't want you pushing another confrontation with the Ferengi."

"T'Laren, this is a deliberate insult. Do you really expect me not to respond? I told you, I'd make sure nothing bad happened to you, and I'd say starving qualifies as 'bad.'"

"No. I would really rather you didn't antagonize them any further than you have. Sooner or later they must feed us vegetable matter, for the sake of your health if nothing else. I can wait a day or so with no ill effect at all. Vulcans are desert dwellers; we evolved to go without food for days if needed."

Q took a deep breath. "I suppose you're right. As long as it's not mushrooms. I hate mushrooms. Nasty little fungal lifeforms. Anything that began its existence in a pile of fecal matter isn't passing my lips, even if it is a replicated copy."

"You do realize that if they're monitoring us, that's the first thing they'll do?"

"Oh, wonderful, T'Laren. Thanks for giving them the great idea, if they haven't thought of it already."

"Perhaps you should have thought of that before mentioning how much you disliked them."

"Well, maybe they're not listening." Q took a mouthful of omelette. "I hope not, because I absolutely despise mushrooms."

Something about the absurd willfulness with which he kept repeating it, even more single-mindedly than Q usually lambasted the things he didn't like, triggered a realization in her. Her eyes widened slightly. Of course. Q was checking to see if they really were listening. If mushrooms turned up in his food, they would know they were definitely being monitored, and if they didn't, then they would know that either they were not being monitored or that the Ferengi had decided to stop playing the humiliation game with them. "You dislike so many things, it's a wonder you find anything to eat," she said. "Who would have thought a human would dislike chocolate?"

"Hey, you're the Vulcan who hates fruit!" His tone was quite put-upon, but there was a sparkle to his eyes, pleasure that she'd caught onto his game. The trickster was in his element, it seemed. Please don't throw me in the briar patch!

She got up and busied herself picking up the clothes Q had left casually tossed on the floor- she didn't want to make a habit of picking up after him, but he was eating, and she didn't want to pay too much attention to what he was eating. Despite the fact that she knew intellectually meat products would make her sick after so long not eating them, and despite the fact that she was wholly committed to maintaining Vulcan discipline about her diet, the truth was that, raised on Earth by humans, she had been trained at an early age to like things like eggs and bacon. The smell would have nauseated a proper Vulcan; it was just making her hungry, and with no prospect for food anytime soon, she had to shut it out and maintain discipline to control the hunger. Something to do was helpful. And it was an outrageous mess. Q would pick it up himself sooner or later, but she'd really prefer sooner.

After he was done, he said, "So."


"So. What do we do to keep from staggering boredom?"

"You have books here, don't you?"

"I've read 'em."

"Read them again."

"I can't read books again." Q shook his head. "I remember how it's going to turn out. Completely ruins it for me."

"I haven't another suggestion then. Unless you have some sort of gameset in amidst your things?"

"Hmm." Q considered. "I have cards, but I don't know any games. I do also have a traditional chess set."

"Not three dimensional chess?"

"Chess was a game with hundreds of years of human history. Three dimensional chess has only been around for about 150 years. Hardly an antique."

"Excellent. Let's find it."

"You sound enthusiastic."

"I have lost every game of three dimensional chess I've ever tried to play. But I'm quite good at traditional chess. Prepare to be trounced."

Q grinned ferally at her. "No one trounces me at a game of intellect, my dear. Let's see how good you really are."

As it happened, she did trounce him, the first three times they played. Although Q would have declared "trounce" to be entirely too strong a term. She defeated him, but he certainly wouldn't have called it a trounce. The fourth time- he insisted on there being a fourth time- he beat her, having figured out her trick. She was simply more patient than he was. She sat lingering over her board for far, far longer than he could stand to do, assessing every possible move, before she made it. All that Vulcan discipline had to be good for something, he supposed, and discipline of any sort was hardly what he was best at.

But he could learn to do anything he put his mind to.

There was no fifth game. Q complained of this, loudly proclaiming that T'Laren was a sore loser. T'Laren pointed out that they had been playing chess for close to six hours, and if she was a sore loser, the sore referred to the state of unused muscles and overused eyes, not an emotional state. By this time, it was very, very late- they'd been taken captive in the early evening, and it was long past either of their bedtimes, but neither of them quite wanted to face sleep. At least, Q didn't. He didn't know what T'Laren's opinion on the matter was, but she'd given in to his demands for more games three times, so he had to assume she really didn't want to sleep either.

"It is late," she said, unnecessarily. "Q, we should retire."

"If you insist," he said grumpily. "I personally am simply jumping with glee at the notion of attempting to sleep under these conditions."

"I do not enjoy our captivity any more than you do. But we have no choice. We need to maintain our alertness and be ready for any change in our situation."

In other words, be ready in case we have an opportunity to stage a jailbreak. Q hadn't had any idea what she was doing when she had actually offered one of the disgusting creatures sexual favors, but as soon as the Ferengi had accused her of plotting a jailbreak, he knew. The fact that T'Laren had defended herself against the accusation by claiming that Vulcans didn't lie- itself an outrageous lie, particularly when applied to T'Laren- had clinched it. And that had reminded him that she was a Starfleet officer with spy training. A counselor, yes, but probably a hell of a lot more accustomed to jailbreaks and derring-do than Troi or Medellin. Knowing that made him feel a lot better. Though he wouldn't have admitted it to T'Laren, he was worried about his plan- tormenting the Ferengi could lead them to decide to get rid of him as fast as possible, but it could just as well backfire, and the only weapon he had was the bluff that he could kill himself.

Of course, if he could get his hands on something he could use as a weapon, he didn't have to bluff. And it might come to that. He would not be sold into slavery. As bad as things had been on Starbase 56, he had been a Federation citizen and had nominally had rights. He wouldn't allow himself to end up somewhere where he had fewer protections than that. And then there was T'Laren. He'd gotten her into this... he had an obligation to get her out. An overwhelming responsibility, for a man who'd only begun to grasp the finer points of self-defense, who'd never in his life needed to know how to protect others, except through argument. It was very reassuring that T'Laren actually knew what she was doing, should it come to a jailbreak. It would also be helpful that he'd crawled all over the inner conduits of Ketaya, trying to learn everything he could about the ship, since they had no engineer and would have to rely on him if anything broke.

T'Laren laid herself on the couch, straight. No blankets, her head on the headrest with no pillow cushioning it. "Don't you want bedsheets or something?"

"I will be meditating, not sleeping. Vulcans do not require sleep; we require only a peaceful meditation period. And I do not believe there are any bedsheets in any case."

"Sure there are. You think I'd trust my skin to replicated junk? I have several spares."

"No wonder your luggage was so heavy."

"Do you want one?"

"No, that won't be necessary. Go to bed, Q."

He grabbed some pajamas, and headed back toward the inner room. Something about the arrangement was bothering him. Certainly he preferred not having T'Laren in his bedroom, and he had to admit that, although the Ferengi could easily walk through any of the doors, since he couldn't lock them, he liked the idea that if he had to be vulnerable in sleep, it could at least be in the inner room where they'd have to get through two sets of doors if they wanted to harass him. And yet there was something nagging, something unpleasant. A vulnerability, a feeling that there was more exposure than there should be. But how could there be? He was sleeping in pajamas- nice ones, royal blue silk, with black satin cuffs and high collar and matching black satin slippers- and the doors would all be shut. What vulnerability could there possibly be, that he could actually overcome?

T'Laren, he realized. In the outer room, drawn into her meditations, lying on the couch right near the door. Only his bluff to kill himself would keep them off of her, and if they could pull her out in the middle of the night without waking him, they could do as they wished with her, and she wouldn't have even the protection of his bluff.

He marched back out to the room. "T'Laren, wake up. You're sleeping in my room."

She opened her eyes. "I am not asleep. And of course I am sleeping in your room. This entire suite is your room."

"That's not what I meant. I mean, I want you sleeping in the inner room."

"There is only one bed in there."

"So you can sleep on the floor. I can put some blankets down and it'll be just as comfortable as that couch you were using."

"Q." She blinked at him. "Exactly why do you think this is necessary? You and I have always slept in separate rooms."

"We haven't been prisoners before," he said tightly. "Just do what I say, okay?"

"I see," she said, and her manner softened. She stood up. "You need not be afraid of an attack in the night, if that's what you fear. I will guard you."

He goggled for a moment at her. She thought he wanted her to protect him? From what? He'd probably have nightmares, but it wasn't as if she could protect him from that. It was on the tip of his tongue to deny it- he couldn't have the Ferengi thinking him such a complete coward, if they were listening.

And then he realized that if they were listening, and they hadn't yet realized they could separate him from T'Laren while he slept and molest her then, he had better not give them any ideas.

"I'll be perfectly fine," he said acerbically. "I just think it'd be better if... you were close by." He let his body language lie to her, let a faint tremor run through his body while he kept his face a sarcastic mask. She'd jump to the conclusion that she was right, that she was needed to protect him. It wasn't the first time in his existence he'd adopted a humiliating pose to get what he wanted, but it bothered him. She thought he was a coward, to jump at shadows. He was in no danger in this place, until they sold him. She was. But she was so used to being the strong one, the protector, it probably hurt her badly to realize that here, she was vulnerable. Just as it had hurt him to become vulnerable, the first time. But she at least had the advantage of being able to lie to herself about it.

He hated being thought a coward when, for once, he was doing something heroic. After all, he didn't want T'Laren in his bedroom. It was his private place, and the thought of being vulnerable there with anyone bothered him. But if he pointed out to her that he was being the hero this time, it would hurt and endanger her, which missed the whole point. So he said nothing else.

They took one of the blankets- the air was chilly; the Ferengi seemed to have reset it for a lower temperature, with greater humidity- and folded it on the floor for T'Laren to lie on, and in, like sandwich meat. Q dumped another one of the blankets on his bed and climbed into it, pulling the covers around himself to make a pseudo-cocoon, with only his head sticking out.

"Good night, Q," T'Laren said softly. "Sleep well."

"Good night, T'Laren," he replied, staring at the wall, knowing he would not be able to sleep at all.

It was a horrible night. He could not lose consciousness of the fact that T'Laren was in his room. Despite the fact that it had been his choice, despite the fact that she was virtually silent, simply the tiny sound of her breathing grated on him, reminding him that he was, for the first time in his human life, sharing his bedroom, and why. He had been held under house arrest before, he'd been thrown in a brig when he'd been human for all of ten minutes, but he'd never actually been held captive by people who'd taken him against his will. At least they didn't want him dead, unlike the rest of the people who'd come after him in his life, but the prospect of being sold to the highest bidder didn't appeal- despite his knowledge of his own value, there was that terrifying, nagging idea that the Federation might not be the highest bidder, might not be willing to be. He might end up in the hands of the Cardassians or the Romulans or the Zellurians. He might be sold to one of the enemies who wanted to slowly torture him to death. In light of these possibilities, he didn't see how he could possibly be expected to sleep. He couldn't get comfortable, either, but if he tossed and turned, the Ferengi monitoring him- if they were monitoring, but he had to assume they were- would know he was suffering. And he couldn't allow that.

When the chronometer displayed 0700 hours and the room's automatic lights started to brighten, Q's mood went from bad to worse. It wasn't the first time he'd "awakened" after a night of not sleeping at all, but it was the first time in his life as a human he'd had to do it without coffee. He stayed in bed, staring at the ceiling, as T'Laren rose and disappeared into the bathroom for her morning ablutions. But there wasn't much point to staying in bed indefinitely- he wouldn't be able to sleep any better now than he had all night, and if he was active, maybe he'd be fractionally less bored.

While T'Laren was in the bathroom, Q staggered out of bed. He felt much as he had in the days right after the Ceulan assassin had tried to kill him, when he'd become so frightened of sleep that he'd simply stopped doing it to the best of his biological ability. His eyes burned, his body was leaden, his head hurt, and his mood was savage. Taking a shower wouldn't help at all- he didn't need a shower now when he'd taken his last one so late last night, and would simply be a reminder of everything he didn't have right now. Like cleaning solvents. And caffeine. The lack of caffeine was torture. So he didn't bother waiting for T'Laren, although being able to get into the bathroom to pee would be nice.

Of course, since the replicator didn't work, he couldn't immediately change into clean clothes, either. Muttering curses under his breath, he put his bathrobe on and stomped out into the living room, to rummage through his closet for something to wear.

The door opened before he had found anything acceptable. A smirking Ferengi entered the room with a tray, on which were two covered bowls. "Breakfast!" He set the tray down on the coffee table and stood there, still smirking.

There were two others standing in the hallway, phasers holstered but easily reachable, watching. T'Laren came out of the bathroom, wearing one of his shirts as a tunic- a green one, despite the fact that people with green skin really shouldn't wear solid green, ever, but then T'Laren's lack of fashion sense was legendary- and a pair of his black pants. She looked like what she was, a woman wearing a much larger man's clothes- all the tailoring he'd done had only managed to keep them from falling off her, not to keep them from making her look like she was drowning in them. His shirt didn't look like a tunic on her, it looked like a muumuu.

Warily Q turned back to the waiting Ferengi and took one of the covered dishes off the tray. He lifted the cover. If they had taken the bait from last night, he expected there'd be a mushroom omelette or something.

Instead it was bugs. Not even grubs, this time. Nasty, squirming, swarming, crunchy, carapaced creatures with far too many legs. In sudden overwhelming disgust and fear, Q dropped the bowl. It hit the floor, and the bugs all fell out and started crawling around on his carpet. The three Ferengi- the one standing by the tray and the two watchers outside the door- howled with laughter.

Nausea and fear turned to white-hot rage. They wanted to use his biology against him? That was a two-edged sword. Q may have led a very fastidious life as a human, for the most part, due to his sincere desire not to have a physicality and all the gross and disgusting things that came with it- but he had studied trickster legends. In thousands of cultures, beings with the same archetype he'd modeled for billions of years engaged in all sorts of disgusting activities to make their points. Too overwhelmed with fury to think about anything but humiliating the Ferengi as badly as they'd done him, he let his robe fall open, yanked his pajama pants down, grabbed his penis and began emptying his morning-full bladder directly into the face of the Ferengi in front of him.

The Ferengi screamed in horror, threw his hands up to protect his face and backed away. The two Ferengi in the hallway rushed in, grabbing Q. At one point he would have cowered into a ball rather than resisting, but T'Laren had been training him in self-defense, and he was furious. He fought back, attempting to pull his arms free through sheer physical force, ignoring the pain as they were wrenched in favor of cursing at the two men holding him.

T'Laren joined in, nerve-pinching one of the two Ferengi, which made the man lose his grip on Q. She pulled him off Q and threw him into a wall, as Q managed to pull himself free of the other one now that he had an arm free. The other one stumbled backward, drew his phaser and fired at T'Laren, dropping her. Q had to assume she was only stunned. He shoved the Ferengi with the phaser, hard, knocking the man to the floor. The phaser went flying. Q dove for it, but it was still closer to the Ferengi, who managed to grab it before Q could reach it.

At this point three more Ferengi, responding to the screams of the one Q had urinated on (who was still huddled in a ball on the floor, and still screaming hysterically), ran into the room, phasers drawn. "Freeze!" one of them screamed at Q, who instead backed up, getting to his feet.

"He- he pissed on me!" the one on the floor wailed. "He pulled out his oogan and he pissed on me!"

The one Q had fought with held his newly retrieved phaser steady on Q as he got to his feet. "Don't move, human, or you'll get what your Vulcan friend got," he warned.

Q smirked. "Then shoot me. I'm sure gunning down unarmed prisoners makes you feel like big manly men."

"Grab him," the Ferengi ordered his three backups. This time Q couldn't fight back. He tried, despite the phasers- what were they going to do, stun him? He'd have preferred that to the beating he expected was coming- but Ferengi, though shorter than the average human and a good bit shorter than him, were proportionately stronger than humans. He wouldn't have been able to fight off two without T'Laren's help; he had no chance with three.

They forced him to his knees as he struggled and cursed them inventively, and then shoved his face into the second bowl of bugs, the one he hadn't dropped. Q screamed, visceral disgust combining with flashbacks of being stung nearly to death. And then he shut his mouth and eyes tightly as his face was forced into the bowl. The bugs in there were alive, if sluggish. They crawled on his closed eyes and lips, itchy tiny legs and hard carapaces brushing over his skin. A thin whine escaped from between his closed lips.

"Eat them! Come on, eat!" one of them shouted.

With teeth still closed tightly, Q opened his lips enough to snarl, "In your dreams, rodent boy."

That got his head pushed even harder. The bowl was smaller than his head; the unrelenting pressure of hands was painfully driving his forehead and his chin into the edge of the bowl. "You break it, you buy it!" Q shouted, still with teeth clenched. "Can't sell my head if you break it!"

He screamed- through clenched teeth- as one of them pulled his hair, very, very hard, and held it tightly. "Open your mouth and eat, animal. Or we could rip all of this out without damaging your value any."

"Even if I was as bald as you I still wouldn't be as ugly," Q retorted.

"Turn him over and hold him down," the one who seemed to be in charge of this, the one who had shot T'Laren, said.

The three Ferengi holding him flipped him over onto his back. One sat on his legs, the other two knelt on his hands. It hurt. Q tried to kick his legs, tried to dislodge the one sitting there- his legs were stronger than his arms and they hadn't separated them and he had the leverage of his torso- but this came to a quick end when the fourth Ferengi came and sat on his chest. The man grabbed his earlobe and twisted it painfully. "Ow! Watch it!"

"Open your mouth or I'll rip this off."

"That's not going to deter my sex life in the slightest, I'll have you kn- OOOOOOWWW! Let go, damn you!"

"I could do this to your balls instead, if you insist, but frankly I don't feel like feeling you up. Humans aren't my type. Not male ones, anyway. Now, are you going to open your mouth or am I going to rip your lobes off with my fingers?"

"How kinky," Q gasped through the pain. "You must be a big hit at your mother's BDSM parties."

The Ferengi pulled harder on Q's ear, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. "You like those kind of parties?" he asked, as Q howled.

"You're so predictable," Q panted. "Pathetic insults and even more pathetic threats. Didn't I tell you you can't frighten me?"

"Doesn't sound like you're not frightened," the Ferengi said, grabbing the second ear and pulling that, just as hard. Q felt as if his earlobes really were on the verge of being ripped off his head.

"That's... pain, you idiot... not fear. Not... the same thing." Although if he hadn't had so much adrenaline racing through his system they probably would have worked out to be about the same. And then there was the fact that technically, he was lying; the truth was that he was terrified. But he wasn't going to beg, and he wasn't going to give in, not for a little pain anyway. He was done with both.

"Why don't you break all his stupid flat teeth?" the one sitting on his left arm said. "Then you can just pour the bugs down his throat."

"Good idea." The Ferengi drew his phaser again and reversed it, butt end hovering over Q's mouth. "You going to open up, human, or do I break all your teeth in?"

"Considering your standards of dental care, I suppose you leave me no choice," Q snapped. He took a deep breath- this was going to be horrible, but having all his teeth broken in this far from Federation medical care had even less appeal- and opened his mouth.

His captor proceeded to pour the contents of the bowl of bugs in. Q choked and gagged, head thrashing, his eyes closed so the ones that fell out and crawled on his face couldn't get into his eyes. When they let him up, he spat out as many bugs as he could, and still could feel their bodies crawling around in his throat, still could taste their bitter, nasty shells. His stomach heaved, and he threw up on the nearest Ferengi, who screamed. "Those were my best shoes! They were worth two bars of latinum!"

"Not... any more," Q said hoarsely.

Infuriated, the Ferengi ripped off his vomit-soaked shirt and wrapped Q's head in it. Q attempted to slam his head into the Ferengi, but the others were holding him tightly enough that he couldn't get the leverage. He started ostentatiously hyperventilating, pretending he couldn't breathe- the truth was he didn't want to; the smell of his own vomit was threatening to make him throw up again. Apparently frightened at their cash cow's seeming fragility, they immediately let him go. He pulled the shirt off and threw it to the floor.

"That's what you get," the one who'd shot T'Laren said. "You act like an animal, we treat you like an animal."

"Other way around," Q said coldly. "You treat me like an animal, and I'll act like one. Give me food I can eat and basic toiletries, or next time I start channeling this body's ape ancestry, and I'll throw feces."

The one he'd peed on- who was still curled up in a ball- started whimpering at that. The one who'd shot T'Laren looked at him in absolute disgust. "You make me sick."

Q lifted the soiled, vomited-on shirt and waved it as a banner. "No, you make me sick. See?"

"Let's get out of here," one of the three relative newcomers said.

"Yeah. Get Fril." The leader-type shook the one curled in a ball. "Come on, Tak. Come on and get showered and changed."

"It's disgusting! How will I ever get a female to touch me again?"

"You wash, Tak. Then they don't know a human pissed on you. Come on." He delivered another glare at Q before leading his younger friend out. Two of the other three carried the stunned one out; the third walked slowly, backing up, holding a phaser trained on Q until they had all left the room and the door shut.

Q looked around himself. He smelled like vomit and bugs, there was still a horrible taste in his mouth, T'Laren was stunned- he could see her stirring very slightly, now- there were horrible disgusting bugs all over his bedroom, and a smell of urine from where the Ferengi he'd peed on had dropped to the floor and started wailing rather than trying to clean himself up. By most lights it had been a disaster and he'd gotten much worse than he'd given. But then, he hadn't curled up on the floor and cried for ten minutes like the one he'd peed on had.

Q got up and staggered to the bathroom, where he stripped off his horribly soiled bathrobe and stepped into the shower. He sat on the floor, leaned his head back against the wall, and laughed, and laughed, until his side hurt. He was a helpless prisoner and yet he had managed to get the upper hand and totally upset his captors. Oh, had he ever gotten to them. By his count, he'd won, and won spectacularly. He laughed until tears came out of his eyes, and when he left the shower and walked out naked to get his clothes, he was still laughing.

He waggled his penis at the ceiling. "You know what else?" he yelled at the unseen monitors. "It's still bigger than yours, too!"

Then he practically collapsed in the closet from laughing too hard. It wasn't until one of the freed bugs crawled across his naked thigh that his hilarity stopped, and he realized he had a huge cleaning job ahead of him. He sighed. "Fun is never free," he muttered, got to his feet, and got dressed.

T'Laren rose up to consciousness slowly. She blinked, looking around her. The last thing she remembered was being hit with stun; it must have been stun on full strength, or she'd taken more of the beam than she had last time, because this time she'd entirely lost consciousness.

She was lying on Q's bed, and aside from some bruises where she'd hit the floor, she felt fine. She got to her feet. There was a thumping noise out in the suite, and then Q's voice, "Gotcha!"

T'Laren raised an eyebrow. What was going on?

As she stepped out of the bedroom, she heard "Puny insect, feel the wrath of the mighty Q!" and saw Q leaping, landing with both feet together on a small area of the floor.

T'Laren's eyebrow went up even further. "Q?"

"Oh, good, you're awake. You can help me."

The room smelled horrible. She remembered what Q had done, and winced inwardly. "Help you do what?"

"There's bugs everywhere. Since our kindly hosts apparently couldn't be bothered giving us the means to get the vermin out of our room, I've been trying to squash them all, but I think a lot of them are hiding under the couch and I am certainly not going to try to lift it by myself."

She walked over to the couch and lifted it, tilting it onto its side. Dozens of insects scurried out. Q began frantically stomping on them.

"Did you have a suggestion for cleaning up the remnants of the insects?" T'Laren asked. "While I sympathize with your desire to remove vermin, having dozens of squashed insect bodies all over our room is hardly cleaner."

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. First I have to kill them all."

"And you think you can accomplish this by running around stepping on them?"

"Is there a good reason why not? They squash very nicely."

"They will likely find places to hide. For instance, the blankets I left in the bedroom."

"So don't go back in the bedroom until we're done here. As long as the door stays shut, they can't get in there."

He had a point. On Earth, in Texas, cockroaches were sufficiently ubiquitous that shutting a door to keep them out was a laughable idea. But on Earth, the buildings were old and not designed hermetically, as spaceships of any kind had to be.

"How many do you believe there to be?"

He shuddered. "Far too many. I wasn't in much of a position to count them. But I think I've probably killed a hundred or so."

"I imagine not. What happened after I was stunned?"

"Gotcha!" Q pounced on a scurrying insect, crushing it. He turned to T'Laren and grinned broadly. "I won."

"I can see how your triumph over an insect would impress you under the current circumstances-"

"No, I mean that's what happened. I won."

"And yet there are insects all over our floor."

"Sure, and the place still smells disgusting, and my pajamas are permanently ruined. But you should see the other guy."

"What possessed you to do that? I understand that you strongly dislike insects, but I cannot imagine how you could have helped the situation by urinating on one of our captors."

"If they give me bugs next time, I'll be very surprised."

"Your forehead is bruised."

He reached a hand up to his forehead, touching the circular mark there. "Is it? Ow. Yeah, you're right. I've been too busy killing bugs to notice."

"Q, in what sense is you having your forehead bruised and me being stunned possibly construable as you winning?"

"I told you. They'll give us real food next time. You just watch."

"But you're hurt."

"Barely. I've had far worse than this. Besides. I fought back, T'Laren. Did you see me?"

"Yes. But then they stunned me."

"Yeah, yeah, and they eventually made me eat some of the bugs, but that's not the point. The point is, I fought them, and it took five of them and a phaser to make me do what they wanted. And I didn't beg even once." He was grinning broadly, obviously extremely pleased with himself. "Meanwhile the one I peed on cried and whimpered the whole time the others were fighting me. So, I won."

Well. She had wanted him to learn self defense and gain a measure of confidence in his own ability to stand up for himself. On the other hand, antagonizing people who held their lives in their hands by urinating on them was not what she had been hoping he would learn to do. "I suppose that's one way to look at it. I think it would be preferable to define 'winning' as a situation in which you were not attacked and forced to eat insects, though."

"I'll take the wins I can get."

She put the couch back down on the floor. "I don't see any more of the insects. I think now would be the appropriate time for you to cross that bridge."

"There might still be more," Q objected.

"Perhaps there are, but I don't see any. I do, however, see a large quantity of crushed insect bodies. Now would be a good time to clean them up."

"I don't have a broom or anything like that."

"It might have been a good idea to think of that before jumping on quite so many."

"What, should I have left them alive? I'm thrilled at the notion of one of them crawling into bed with me, believe you me."

"I think you could have handled this entire situation somewhat better."

"Yes, yes, you told me so, I was a bad boy, la la la. Sing a new song, T'Laren, that one's boring me. What can we use to clean up these dead bugs?"

"I'm failing to see why there's a 'we' in that sentence."

"Oh, come on. It's not my fault there's bugs in here! The Ferengi brought them!"

"You did drop the bowl."

"And you would have too under the same provocation! Oh, wait, no, I forgot, you're such a stalwart Vulcan. So very, very good at controlling unpleasant emotions like shock and startlement. There's certainly nothing anyone could have done to startle you into behaving badly, is there?"

This was an obvious dig at how she'd behaved toward Sovaz. "The bugs are your responsibility. It'll do you some good to face the consequences of your actions once in a while."

"My actions? Hello? I didn't bring the bugs in here!"

"But you did urinate on one of our captors. And since I'm sure you know nothing about neutralizing scents, removing that particular smell is going to have to be my duty. So you can deal with the bugs."

"We could just rub shoe polish on the spot. Then it'd smell like shoe polish instead of pee."

"That would not be a great improvement."

"Says you. I think anything's an improvement over the smell of human urine."

"Perhaps you should have thought of that before you decided to urinate on the Ferengi."

"You have any familiarity with Earth trickster legends, T'Laren?"

"Some, yes. I've read children's versions of the stories of Coyote and Anansi to Sovaz."

"Oh, well, you might just as well have been reading about Bugs Bunny. The original trickster legends are full of all sorts of repulsive bodily fluids, gender-changing, sordid sexual practices and general havoc with whatever society's established boundaries of good taste were. I have no desire to model myself after them entirely, of course... but that is where the only power I have now lies. I'm willing to put up with a bad smell if I can torment my enemies to the point where they want to be rid of me quickly."

"My sense of smell is rather more acute than yours."

"Waaah. My sense of boredom is far more acute than yours, so I'd say that if we're having a suffering contest, I'm in the lead."

"Q. Get a rag and clean up the bugs."

"I don't have any rags. All I have are my clothes."

"Some of them may as well be rags."

"I'm wounded. The Vulcan who likes to dress in a solid grey ensemble has a poor opinion of my clothing! Whatever shall I do?"

"I would suggest, finding something you can spare to clean bugs with, while I attempt to find some sort of solvent chemical."

"Actually I've got a portable stain remover in the closet. I don't see why it wouldn't work on a stained carpet."

Well. That actually was helpful. "See if you can find it for me, and I'll attempt to locate something you can use for a rag."

"Why do I have a sudden sinking feeling that this is a bad, bad idea?"

"Because you're enamored of your own lack of taste in clothing?"

"My lack of taste?"

"You have a leopard-print loincloth. I will no longer listen to any protestations that you have taste."

He burst out laughing. "Oh, you saw that?"

"Yes. I believe I was permanently scarred by the sight."

"If it makes you feel better I've actually only worn it once. Eleanor had me under house arrest again, and I knew that sooner or later she'd show up to try to harangue me into doing my job, so I put that on to see her reaction when she finally showed up."

"In that case perhaps it would make an excellent rag."

"Oh, you're probably right. Listen, why don't you get the bugs and I'll clean up the stain? I know how to use the device, and since you pointed out I'm less bothered by the smell than you are..."



"You're cleaning up the bugs. Don't try to get out of it."

"But it would be easier-"

"No, the person with the better sense of smell will be better able to tell when it's actually clean, and besides, you stomped on them, you clean them up."

"What, do you have a phobia of dead insects?"

"I have a phobia of letting you weasel out of your obligations. Clean the bugs, Q."

He sighed. "Yes, Mommy."

As she worked on cleaning the carpet, she focused on trying to control her emotions. Q had been, for Q, almost conciliatory, even agreeing to use a piece of his precious wardrobe as a rag to clean dead bugs. She, however, had not been able to stop sniping at him. This kind of lack of control was unacceptable. True, Q should not be urinating on their captors. She could see nothing good coming of that. And true, it was very likely that the Ferengi's eventual retaliation would be terrible. But there was no logical point to being afraid. She couldn't do anything about it, no matter what they decided to do. Q wouldn't listen to her, the Ferengi wouldn't listen to her... that still didn't mean there was any point to letting herself get angry.

The door slid open. A Ferengi entered with two covered bowls. This time she could smell that there were vegetables, and no insects. Before the Ferengi had even left, she went over to the bowls and lifted the lids. One bowl was full of salad. The other... her lip twitched before she got her face back under control. The other was a bowl of sliced mushrooms.

"Our breakfast is finally here," she told Q.

"Good, because I'm getting really, really sick of cleaning up bugs." He came over to the low table. "What've we got?"

"I've received a salad. You... have mushrooms."

"Mushrooms? Oh, the horror! How I despise mushrooms! Blast those Ferengi for giving me mushrooms!" Q flung a hand out in a dramatic gesture. "The disgust overwhelms me. I may die!" He dropped the hand. "On the other hand I haven't had anything to eat all day, so I suppose, if I must, I can force myself to partake of nasty, disgusting mushrooms..." He grabbed a handful of the slices and stuffed them in his mouth. "Hmm. You know, I need to rethink my position. It seems that after all this, I don't mind mushrooms at all! But now I'd really hate a cup of coffee."

For a moment T'Laren wished she weren't Vulcan, so she could laugh out loud. It really shouldn't be funny- Q's histrionics had certainly given away that the two of them knew they were being monitored, if the Ferengi had any brains whatsoever- but Q had a brilliant sense of comic timing when he felt like using it. Perhaps, after all, it hadn't been such a bad thing that he'd urinated on the Ferengi. She couldn't quite see why he defined what had happened to him as having come out ahead in the encounter, but she'd been telling him all along that he'd feel more self-confidence if he tried to defend himself instead of just curling up and whimpering. Certainly from all she'd heard she wouldn't have expected Q to be in such good spirits after being physically overpowered and force-fed something he was phobic about.

"I, too, would hate a cup of coffee," T'Laren said solemnly. "Even more than I would hate a bunch of grapes."

"Oh, and we all know how much you hate grapes," Q said, grinning. "Want some mushrooms?"

"Yes, I would. Thank you. Would you like some croutons? Or a piece of tomato?"

"Not trying to force-feed me the green stuff?"

"No. The green stuff is for me."

"Ah. I see your interest in the welfare of your patient flies out the window when it's your own stomach at stake."

"You're not my patient anymore. I no longer feel obligated to let you share my bell peppers."

"Well, that's good. Because I don't want your bell peppers. Even though I love bell peppers."

Q's mushrooms tasted fine. Delicious, in fact. Her own salad tasted slightly off, as if perhaps it'd been grown on a planet and sprayed with pesticide or preservative or something not-quite-vegetable rather than coming fresh out of a replicator. She resisted the temptation to eat more of Q's mushrooms; she was very hungry, and the Vulcan biological strategy for dealing with low food rations was to want to eat like a pig once food was available, which was making matters worse. There was very little solid in her salad, very little filling; it was rich in vitamins but low in calories, and after having not eaten for an entire day she really could have used more starch than a few small croutons could give her. There was also no protein at all. They hadn't thought to give her a salad with chick peas or lentils in it; they hadn't actually gone into her food menu at all or there'd be at least some Vulcan vegetables in here and probably a whole lot more of it. Salad was so much a meat-eater's notion of what a vegetarian would be eating, anyway. But Q was thinner and at more risk for suffering hunger than she was; she needed to encourage him to eat. She put a few chunks of carrot in his bowl to replace the mushrooms she'd taken and give him something with some vitamins.

T'Laren was finished long before Q. After one last wistful look at his half-eaten bowl of mushrooms, she got up and began inspecting their living quarters, looking to see if all the dead bugs had been cleaned up and if, in fact, all the bugs were actually dead. One or two live ones turned up, which she crushed and then cleaned up with the rag. Many dead ones that Q had missed were strewn all over. "This wasn't a very good cleaning job."

"I wasn't done. I thought eating was higher priority."

"If it's higher priority, why are you doing it so slowly?"

He sighed. "Mushrooms, mushrooms, and mushrooms is really an incredibly tedious dish. You want to finish it?"

"Q, you should eat."

"Yeah, I should, but since I'm not going to, you may as well. Give me my rag back, I have strange dead bugs to seek out."

She was about to do so when the ship jerked wildly, throwing him into her, and the lights went out.

Aboard a starship, lights going out was a Bad Thing. An even Worse Thing was the sudden terrible silence, signaling the complete absence of air circulation. She helped Q get off her and onto his knees. "What was that? Are we under attack?" he asked.

"I don't know... I'd expect more shaking around than just that if we were, and the fact that the power is completely out would be strange for a first shot..."

"Oh. No, you're right. I know what's going on." He sounded much more confident. "They were trying to test out our transwarp engines and they blew the crystals. T'Laren, while the power's down they can't monitor us..."

"Of course. Do you need help finding the door?"

"I think I have encountered the concept of darkness once or twice in my existence," he said dryly.

They made their way to the door to the suite. "There's an emergency manual release to the right," she said. "We'll need to find the panel and pull it off."

"Easily done. I already knew where that panel was. I just... yes. Here we go. Urg! How the hell do you get this thing to budge?"

"Let me help." T'Laren's fingers found the panel. "There's a trick to it- yes, here." She pulled on the emergency manual release. The doors banged open loudly.

Outside there was one Ferengi on watch. She heard his feet scuffle on the floor as he turned. "Hey! I'll shoot!"

"I need fresh air!" Q babbled, loudly. "We could die in there! There's no air circulation! I'm claustrophobic- I can't take being locked up in a tiny room, in the dark! What's happening? You have to tell me!"

While his extremely loud blather was occupying the Ferengi's better-than-Vulcan hearing, T'Laren was gliding as silently as she could toward the very, very faint glow of a heat source. Vulcan vision had less of an infrared component than most of their evolutionary neighbors on their planet, having sacrificed it for better daytime vision, but with her eyes completely dark-adapted she could see just the tiniest bit into the infrared, and that allowed her to see the Ferengi as a very, very dim red glow against the utter blackness. She waited until he spoke.

"Get back into your room, human! I-"

That was all she needed to identify exactly where his head was, and therefore, where his neck was. Her hand reached out and grasped, twisting at the nerve cluster. The Ferengi dropped to the floor.

"There may be others," she said softly. "Be quiet except in emergency; we'll need my ears to navigate."


But they had only gotten three feet down the hallway before the lights came back on.

"Damn!" Q whispered harshly. There had been a Ferengi at the end of the hallway, walking toward them; as soon as the lights came on he saw them, and raised his phaser before either of them had a chance to run or dodge.

"Stay right there!" the Ferengi shouted. He tapped his combadge. "I need backup. The prisoners are escaping!"

"We needed air!" Q complained. "The circulation turned off in our quarters! What did you expect us to do?"

"March right back in there, now!"

T'Laren could see no point to refusing. At this distance she couldn't possibly reach the Ferengi before he could stun her, and she had been stunned far too many times recently. She backed away and back into the suite, complying. With bad grace Q copied her, grumbling. "Dammit, we were so close..."

Two more Ferengi showed up. "What were you two doing out of your suite?" the taller one asked superciliously.

"I keep saying. We were trying to get some fresh air. There was no circulation in here."

"And that's why Frej is lying on the floor, right?"

"We tripped over him in the dark and he hit his head."

"Do you expect us to believe that, human?"

"I don't care what you believe. But I do expect you to be able to maintain basic standards of care like keeping our air on."

"Computer. Relock door!"

The door slammed shut in their faces. Q flung himself on the couch. "Goddammit."

"We did our best, Q. It wasn't our fault the power came back on so quickly."

"Of course there's going to be no shortage of power failures like that in the future if they keep playing with the transwarp, so I suppose we'll get another chance as long as they're stupid."

"Yes. You did very well, you know. Your patter, at the door? That was exactly the distraction I needed."

"Glad I could help."

She sat down on the couch next to him. "They've already made two sizable mistakes," she said softly, almost whispering. "Logically, it's only a matter of time."

"Oh, I do hope you're right." He sounded sour and disbelieving.

She doubted very much that she'd be able to cajole him out of the dark mood. "Why don't you finish your mushrooms, since we appear to be going nowhere at the moment?"

"I told you. I don't want them. You eat them."

"Very well." Q's mood had obviously taken a dramatic downturn. She wished he could establish some equanimity. This was an unfortunate setback, but it wasn't as if they'd expected the opportunity, either. T'Laren picked up the bowl of mushrooms and ate them hungrily. They really tasted much better than her salad had.

She had finished the mushrooms, and was just about to try to see if she could get Q to do something to get his mind off their situation, when the door opened and three Ferengi with phasers entered. Immediately she tensed. This could be some sort of retribution for the escape attempt, or for the urination thing.

"Human. The Lady Yalit wants to see you in Engineering."

"The Lady Yalit can send people who know what species I belonged to for millions of years, then," Q drawled, making no attempt to get off the couch.

"Or, we could just stun you and drag you there," the second Ferengi said. He was the one who'd caught them in the corridor, and the other two had been involved in Q's fight with the Ferengi this morning.

"That's quite true, but then what would you do with an unconscious lump of human in engineering? You want my mind, you call me by my name. Q. It's only one syllable and it's very easy to spell."

"What makes you think anyone wants you for your mind, human? Maybe Lady Yalit wants something else from you."

Q made a disgusted face. "Heaven forfend. No, I'm pretty sure she wants me to explain to her why the lovely transwarp engine she's just stolen from me does not go. See, I am smart. I can make it go." He said the last two sentences very slowly, with a condescending smirk.

"All right then, Q, come with us to Engineering or we'll stun you and drag you," the first Ferengi said.

"Have you any idea what being dragged along a corridor will do to my hair?" Q stood up. "Come on, T'Laren. We've been summoned."

"Not your female!" the first Ferengi barked. "Just you."

"Oh. Well, then, no deal." Q plopped back down on the couch. "T'Laren stays with me."

"Q, there is actually most likely nothing I would be able to do to protect you in this situation," T'Laren said. There was no point in whispering. If she pitched her voice loud enough that Q could hear her, the Ferengi would hear as well.

"Protect me?" He looked taken aback for a second.

Why did that surprise him? Wasn't that why he wanted her to come along?... unless it was simply for moral support. "It would be better to avoid being stunned and dragged off."

"Whatever, T'Laren." He turned back to the Ferengi. "Do you want me to cooperate or no?"

"Your female is staying right here."

"Well, then so am I."

"Q, there isn't actually anything I can do for you that is worth running the risk of being stunned. And I would rather not go to Engineering." The thought of being out in a public place, surrounded by the Ferengi, where she wouldn't have any room to defend herself if one of them decided he wanted to grope her, and where Q would have to devote his attention to dealing with their head captor and so she would not be able to draw his attention to her if there was a problem... She would endure, if it happened. But it didn't appeal.

"You don't want to come with me."

"No, to be honest I would rather not. I am not an engineer- there will be little I can do. And I suspect Yalit will not talk to me either." A woman who gained power in such a sexist society didn't tend to do it by having warm sisterly feelings toward other women.

Q gave her an unreadable look. "Fine." He got up. "Take me to your leader."

He was probably offended, but there was nothing she could do about that. He had to save his ammunition for the big battles, which meant she couldn't let him expend his energy on the small stuff like this.

After he left with the Ferengi, she began going through her exercise routines- she was going to have to become accustomed to moving in clothing that was too large for her if they were to get another chance.

So she didn't want his protection. Okay, she didn't realize she needed it, but did she have to undermine him in front of the Ferengi? If they molested her while he was gone it was only what she deserved for preventing him from stopping it. No matter how many times Q declared this to himself, however, it didn't reduce his nervousness.

Nothing he could do. He let himself breathe, evenly, calmly, knowing that pretending to feel an emotion was the closest he could approach to actually changing his emotional state. The nervousness would not go away if he pretended it wasn't there, but it would lessen to the point where he could sincerely ignore it.

He had the upper hand here. Yalit would never be able to figure out how the hell Lhoviri's jury-rigged transwarp drive worked, never having been exposed to a working drive using proper fuel. It took the knowledge and experience of a Q to screw up technology quite this badly, and it would take the same to disentangle the situation. He wasn't happy with the idea of letting Yalit know anything whatsoever about transwarp- he'd refused to work on transwarp for the Federation, for good reasons having to do with maintaining the balance of power in the Alpha Quadrant- but he could use this to leverage his return to the Federation, as well as better treatment while he was here, and once he had that arranged he could have Yalit arrested for kidnapping, at which point her knowledge of transwarp mechanics would not do her much good.

They led him into engineering, to a small office on the side of the engineering room. Yalit was in the office, still naked, sitting in a very tall chair. "Brill, Yark—you can leave Q here." She gestured them out. They didn't argue with her, just obeyed.

"I see you've got these two better trained than the one who whined about you offending your womanhood, on Yamato," Q needled.

Yalit ignored him. "I want information from you."

"About how to work the transwarp drive? And duplicate it, so you can sell it to the highest bidder?" Q smirked at her. "Your incompetence with it was obvious when the power went out."

Her eyes narrowed. "You just don't learn, do you," she said, leaning forward with a scowl on her face. "You're in my power here, Q. Your obnoxious mouth won't save you. I can do anything I want to you."

"But you won't, because I'm too valuable for you to risk my life. So let's skip the posturing and get to the deal-making, shall we? I hear you Ferengi are supposed to be good at that."

"Fine." She smiled tightly, thin-lipped.

Q sat on her desk. "I can solve your little transwarp problem for you. In fact I'm the only one who can, since the reason it doesn't work the way you think it should is because my brother screwed around with it, and I'm the only one who knows what he did and can compensate for it. But it's going to cost you."

"Oh, really."

"Yes, really. First of all, I want replicator access restored for myself and T'Laren. We can't feed ourselves, wash, get clothes that fit—the situation is absolutely intolerable and I won't stand for it." He stood up and circled around to Yalit's chair, leaning on it as he looked down at her. "Secondly, you ransom us back to the Federation. They'll pay exorbitantly to get me back, I'm quite sure. There's no need to start a bidding war. Thirdly, you give us access to the gym and swimming pool—supervised, of course, I'm quite aware you're not going to let us run around the ship unescorted, but since you won't give us computer access we're bored out of our minds."

Yalit's smile grew broader. "Here's my counteroffer. You do what I tell you to, when I tell you to, and you give me any information I ask for, or I have you sedated and kept in stasis where you can't kill yourself until I have a chance to sell you off to the highest bidder, I don't even include the Federation in the bidding, and I give your girlfriend to my sons to do what they want with until we have a chance to sell her to the Romulans for their breeding projects. How's that sound?"

Q straightened up, almost involuntarily backing away from Yalit, as cold terror spread through him. For a moment he couldn't speak. He wanted to hit Yalit, to wipe that cold smile off her face, but he'd never hit anyone in anger before and he wasn't about to start now, not with so much at stake. He forced his own face back from wide-eyed shock to something more controlled and calculating. "Well, then you wouldn't have transwarp, would you. As much as you could get for selling me on the open market, you'd certainly get more for selling me and a working transwarp drive."

"That's a financial risk I'm willing to take. It's your life, Q, you and your woman's. Are you willing to take that risk?"

He matched her cold smile. It was a lie; his heart was pounding and he could feel rivulets of cold sweat break out on the back of his neck. But he was very, very accomplished at using his body language to lie. "And if I kill myself hours after my new owners take possession, I imagine they'd be really quite unhappy with you. I know your Rules of Acquisition have something to say about no refunds, but what are you going to do if, say, the entire Romulan government is enraged with you for selling them a bill of goods?"

"I could always sell you to one of the people who wants you dead anyway. I've had a few choice offers from the Tätarians, and a nice bid from the Ceuli."

The cold terror intensified. It was an effort to keep breathing normally. He did it anyway, deliberately leaning over her again as he had before. "You could. But the thing about nearly everyone who wants me dead is that they don't just want me dead; they want me to go through their execution ritual. So again, if I kill myself right after being handed over to them, they don't get their money's worth, and they come after you. Do you know what Ceulan execution rituals consist of? Do you know that ripping them off financially is a crime they're willing to kill for? Now, if you're eager to have your chest cut open and your heart ripped out while you're still alive, by all means sell me to the Ceuli. Nothing could make me happier than to know my death will cause yours." He took a step away from her, leaning back against the wall, the picture of insouciance. "Or, we could come to an arrangement. You want transwarp—and you'd rather I didn't off myself before whoever you sell me to thinks they've gotten their money's worth. I want protection for T'Laren and some basic sentient rights. You either deal, or neither of us get what we want, and as a Ferengi I'd think you'd be a marginally better negotiator than that."

"You'd really see your woman sold into slavery and yourself killed if I don't give you access to a swimming pool?"

"Well, no, I'm willing to make a few small concessions. Tell you what. If you absolutely refuse to give us replicator access, then you have T'Laren's clothes moved into my quarters. We give you a list of basic amenities, and you replicate them and hand them over so we can take showers and brush our teeth. You feed us decent food, on a regular schedule. You include the Federation as one of the bidding partners when you auction me off, and you hand T'Laren over to the Federation before you hand me over to whoever's buying. Unless, obviously, you sell me back to the Federation, in which case you can hand us over at the same time. In exchange, I'll help you figure out this transwarp thing, and graciously refrain from killing myself, if you don't sell me to someone who wants me dead anyway."

"I could beat transwarp out of you," she said softly.

"Without me killing myself? Not likely," he snorted. "A race of godlike entities couldn't get me to do what they wanted. What makes you think you could come close without making it worth my while to cooperate?"

All she needed to do was call his bluff about killing himself. He was gambling everything, and he knew it. His mouth had gone completely dry with fear, and it was an effort of will not to shake. Posturing as if he had the upper hand when in fact Yalit had just proven she had him over a barrel was taking everything he had. But if he gave in, if he didn't try to force any concessions out of her whatsoever, then she'd know he really did have no power, and then she could do anything to him and to T'Laren, anything at all.

Yalit looked at him for several long moments, piggy little eyes narrowed, assessing him. Waiting for him to crack. An overwhelming urge to sweeten the deal, to offer her more enticements so she'd take it, swept him. He ignored it. He had to pretend he had the power here or neither his life nor T'Laren's would be worth living. He simply lounged back against the wall, studying her just as intently, behaving for all the world as if all this was of merely academic interest to him.

"Let's do this," Yalit said. "I give your woman her clothes back, after searching them for any weaponry. I give you the amenities I think you need based on the guesting guidelines for humans and Vulcans in the computer. I'll give you the food on time, and I'll include the Federation in the auction. And once I've sold a working transwarp drive, I'll hand your woman back to the Federation. But if I can't sell transwarp, I'll sell her to the Romulans."

"I hardly think T'Laren should be punished if you turn out to be an incompetent saleswoman. Transwarp ought to sell itself."

"Then you won't be worried."

"No, because you can get a financial benefit out of dragging your feet on selling transwarp until after I'm gone. No. You guarantee T'Laren's safe return to the Federation or you get nothing from me. I'll work with you in any reasonable manner to make sure you've got a saleable product, with fuel requirements you pathetic Alpha Quadrant mortals can actually meet, but T'Laren isn't negotiable. She goes back to the Federation or there's no deal." This wasn't pure altruism on his part; it would be easier for the Ferengi to hand both himself and T'Laren over at the same time, and demanding that T'Laren be returned to the Federation as a condition of the deal made the Federation a more attractive customer and the Romulans a less attractive one. But if he were honest with himself, that wasn't a very large part of his motivation. Having come up against a Romulan telepath, and having read some of that telepath's memories, he knew that Vulcans were useful to Romulans as captive breeders; half-Vulcan children would be telepaths and could be used in the Tal Shiar as elite agents like tr'Sahlassiu had been, though he'd been a full Romulan throwback and not part Vulcan. He couldn't imagine any circumstances under which being forced to bear children who'd then be taken away to be raised by your captors could not be a hellish life. If Yalit wouldn't bend on that… well, she had to. She wouldn't risk losing her money on transwarp; T'Laren couldn't possibly be as valuable as transwarp if for no better reason than that transwarp could be sold many times.

Yalit studied him again. He met her eyes hard, without blinking.

"All right. You make sure I have a product I can sell, and your girlfriend will be returned to the Federation when I sell you."

"How generous of you," he said sarcastically. He pushed off from the wall. "Now, if we're done here, I want a shower with the proper amenities, and coffee. Bring me back to my room, prove your goodwill by giving me what I've asked for in terms of showering supplies, T'Laren's clothes, and a pot of coffee, and I'll get to work for you."

"How about you get to work right now, and I have those things sent to your room?"

"Nope. You pretend to be a scientist, you ought to know better. I don't work without coffee. And I won't work while smelling like I haven't had a decent shower in two days. You want to use my brain, you keep it in good operating condition."

"Well, I suppose my boys won't want to put up with your human stink anyway. So fine. But you'd better be useful, or you're going into stasis and your woman's going to the Romulans."

"Oh, please. Would I be worth what I am if I weren't more fantastically useful than you can imagine how to take advantage of?"

"You could be highly overrated, and fooling everyone."

"Don't confuse me with you. The Federation is full of real scientists, unlike the Ferengi Alliance. I couldn't have kept my reputation up more than a few weeks if I couldn't back it up. And besides, who proved the nature of the anomaly back on Yamato? I rest my case."

"Brill! Yark! Take this arrogant human back to his room."

"Don't forget. Showering amenities, T'Laren's clothes, and coffee. Or else you get nothing from me."

"I haven't forgotten. No matter how stupid you think I am, I wouldn't be where I am without brains, and you'd best remember it."

"Try to prove it to me, then," Q shot back, and followed his escorts back to his room.

T'Laren was removing things from the room replicator when he came in. She turned. "We have toiletries. Is this your doing?"

"Let's just say I cut a deal," Q said, making a beeline for the replicator. "What've we got so far?"

"Shampoo, body wash, odor suppressors…" The replicator's "I just made something" noise bleeped, and she reached in and took it. "Beard repressor. For you, I'd imagine." She handed it to him.

"What, Vulcan women have hairy armpits?"

"Vulcan women see little logic in removing body hair when living in cold, human-normal environments. We also have a hairbrush."

He inspected the hairbrush. "This is obviously a sophisticated implement of torture."

"It's a hairbrush."

"It's a device to facilitate going bald. Fortunately I have hairbrushes of my own. What about tooth cleaners?"

"One. It's a sonic device."

"That's still disgusting. There had better be another one. We are not sharing a tooth cleaner."

"It's a sonic device, Q. It never actually comes in contact with any part of your mouth."

"Maybe yours doesn't, but I like my teeth to actually be clean? Oh, there we go." He took the second tooth cleaner out of the replicator and picked up the shampoo. "Damn. This is for water showers."

"Ketaya has water shower capability."

"Yes, but water showers are disgusting."

"There's nothing disgusting about water, Q. You drink it."

"It doesn't actually clean you. Plus the temperature controls are always intemperate and ill-controlled."

"Do you truly think you can get them to give us cleansers for sonics instead? These are typical Ferengi hotel supplies, Q, and the Ferengi don't use sonic showers. Water's too plentiful on Ferenginar and they're too dependent on frequent humidification."

He didn't really think he could push his luck with Yalit. "I'll live, I suppose. But if they're not going to give us stuff for sonic showers they better give us towels."

"They will. As I said, these are standard hotel supplies for human or Vulcan guests. See, here are the washcloths."

"How are we supposed to function with only four washcloths?"

"I suppose they'll have to replenish them on occasion. I wonder if they will make any provision to allow us to wash our clothes, or if they'll give us clothing from the replicator."

"Or they can always do our laundry for us," Q said pointedly at the ceiling, loudly. He picked up the shampoo, the body wash, the odor suppressors, the beard repressor—which he was in dire need of; there was nothing more repulsive about the male human body than its incessant need to grow ape-like hairs all over its face—and one of the washcloths. "I'm going to take a shower. When the towels come out, throw them in the bathroom for me. I'll leave the door unlocked."

He made sure to adjust the temperature of the water before he actually got in the shower—after his first hellish experience with a water shower, that wasn't exactly something he'd forget, ever—and then, once he was in, slumped down in the back, letting the water hit him in the chest and stomach and sluice down. The shakes took him then, hard. He closed his eyes, breathing in the hot mist from the water, trying desperately not to start crying, but he couldn't control the violent trembling in his body any longer, and he didn't try. He'd learned the hard way that while he could hide his emotions as much as he wanted, if he didn't find some outlet for them eventually he'd lose the ability to hide them at all, and he'd crack. And he couldn't safely do that here. His demand for a shower had been more about needing a few minutes in privacy where he could let the fear out than about anything else.

Aside from moments when death had seemed imminent, he hadn't been this scared since the time he thought Starfleet Security would kill him. He had been managing thus far to mostly avoid being terrified—angry, deeply annoyed, somewhat troubled, but not terrified. The Ferengi were so laughable, it hadn't entirely sunk in that he was a prisoner of someone who hated him and would go out of her way to harm him. He'd been more upset for T'Laren than for himself, and even at that had been more angry at the way they were treating her than afraid.

It was sinking in now. They could do anything to him. Anything at all. Or anything to her. This wasn't a joke, this wasn't a minor annoyance. He was a prisoner. Yalit might be money-grubbing enough to keep him alive and unhurt long enough to sell him off… or she might not. And she would probably prefer not to sell him to the Federation. The knowledge that she'd actually made inquiries of species that wanted him painfully dead deeply shook him. She'd have had to do some research; there was no way any of his enemies could know where he was this soon, so they hadn't contacted Yalit, she had obviously contacted them. She wanted to sell him to someone who would torture him to death. His breathing grew ragged. No. He wasn't going to cry. It would be too obvious, without extensive use of cosmetics to hide it and he didn't have time to put them on.

He'd thought he was doing so well. He'd successfully won his small victory today, he'd even gotten them to give them decent food... but he couldn't win. Yalit held far too much of the power here. Essentially he was a slave now; she could do as she liked to him without even the thin protection being a Federation citizen had given him from Anderson's heavy-handed tactics. His only hope was to cooperate.

Except, he suddenly realized, he couldn't do that, either.

He had to assume that Lhoviri sending T'Laren to him meant he'd been forgiven for helping humanity fight off the Borg. But he wasn't going to be so lucky twice. Transwarp was a technology he'd refused to give the Federation for reasons of personal ethics and Q law; they had tried, on occasion, to pressure him into it, but because they had their own Prime Directive to compare to, he had successfully managed to resist the pressure and get them to back down. In some ways giving Yalit the technology was actually preferable, since the fact that she'd sell it to everyone meant that the power imbalance giving it to just one nation would cause would be ameliorated. But it wasn't technology any of these people were ready for.

For one thing, Thetaran warp drives would be very attractive to the Borg, who currently needed to generate static transwarp corridors and maintain them with an elaborate system of hubs and gates, and would love to get their hands on dynamic transwarp. Q knew, even if the Federation didn't, that the virus he'd helped them develop would have done serious damage to the Borg and convince them to leave the Federation alone for the indefinite future, but couldn't have actually destroyed the species. And something like dynamic transwarp would get the Borg to come back into the Alpha Quadrant despite having been burned two years ago.

Then there was the fact that the Federation used the development of warp as their standard to determine what species were equals, who could be traded or treated with, and what species were primitives that needed to be left alone. What changes might the development of transwarp herald? It was already true that the Alpha/Beta Quadrant powers- the Federation, the Romulans, the Klingons, the Cardassians, and to a much lesser extent the Ferengi- all had a generally higher standard of technology than smaller, non-aligned powers, with the exception of such outliers as the Tholians. Having transwarp would set these species even further ahead, and leave the smaller, less technologically advanced species further in the dust, effectively killing their chances of advancing to be quadrant powers themselves if they didn't ally with one of the others. The Federation would be more effective at its own insidious form of assimilation; the Klingons and Cardassians might start dreaming of empire again. The Romulans would be the most dangerous, as their quantum singularity drives could be most easily retrofitted to work with transwarp, but there was already a full-time Q assigned to maintaining the Romulans as a destabilized, chaotic power and cleaning up the temporal messes they made due to the chrono-warping nature of their tech. The Continuum, or at least his brother with oversight of the Romulans, would be deeply unhappy with him for letting the Romulans spread their temporal anomalies even farther through the galaxy.

And he couldn't rely on the notion that he could give Yalit transwarp and then expect the Federation to arrest her and thus keep her technology under control. Firstly, if he wasn't handed over to the Federation then the Federation likely wouldn't arrest her, and secondly, he didn't trust the Federation. Yalit would offer them transwarp to cut a deal, and he'd be forced into the position of seeing her walk free after kidnapping him or else giving the Federation transwarp himself.

But. If he didn't work with Yalit on transwarp, he'd be sold into slavery or torturous death, with no actual recourse- as much as he wished his bluff were true right now, he couldn't actually kill himself with his mind, and after he'd seen how effective the Federation was at stopping him from killing himself he was desperately afraid that anyone who enslaved him would even more easily be able to prevent him from doing it. And T'Laren would be turned into some sort of brood cow for the Tal Shiar. He couldn't allow that to happen. He owed her too much.

This was all Lhoviri's fault, he thought hotly. Lhoviri had put a working Thetaran drive in this boat. Yalit wouldn't be demanding transwarp from him if there wasn't a semi-working transwarp drive right in front of her. He was only human, they couldn't seriously expect him to throw his life away for the sake of maintaining Q ethics- and not just his life, but someone else's as well. And yet, he was fairly sure that was exactly what they would expect from him. The Q weren't known for taking the circumstances into account. And he wouldn't be allowed to stand trial and point out that really this was all Lhoviri's fault; they wouldn't even contact him, they'd just... never take him back. Perhaps even kill him, though a clean death at the hands of the Continuum was preferable to the other alternatives facing him. There was no point to living if they would never take him back. He'd almost rather be tortured to death. It would get it over with faster; living as a mortal with no hope of ever going home would be torture.

He didn't know what to do. He felt completely helpless.

No, he did know what to do. He had no choice. He'd work with Yalit, because the Q would give him enough rope to hang himself. Only at the point where she actually sold off the technology and destabilized the mortal powers around here would they invoke his punishment. Whereas if he outright refused, she would immediately have him thrown into stasis and he'd have no opportunity to escape until after he was already in the hands of whoever would end up buying him. He had to play for time. Maybe there'd be a way to stop Yalit from keeping the information... No, better idea. Maybe he could just lie. Yalit was no great shakes as a physicist, and Q had discovered long ago he could mislead better minds than hers. He'd give her something, all right, but it wouldn't be true- and meanwhile she'd be trying to close a deal, and meanwhile he and T'Laren could work on escaping, and maybe he could get Yalit to accidentally blow the crystals once or twice more to kill the power so he and T'Laren could get away. It was dangerous, but it was the best shot he had.

He got out of the shower and got dressed. Being clean and free of unpleasant smells and facial stubble was a great help. The coffee he found waiting for him outside the shower was black, which was repulsive, but it was still coffee, so he drank it. He'd badly needed it; the adrenaline of his confrontation with Yalit had worn off, and the reaction to that, as well as the fact that he hadn't slept at all last night, was starting to drag him down again.

"They've brought me my clothes," T'Laren said, sounding surprised. "What did you offer them?"

"Transwarp," he said shortly. "They're trying to figure out how that screwed-up drive Lhoviri put in works. I've offered to help them, in exchange for some small concessions."

"Is that wise? The Ferengi do not strike me as the appropriate holders of highly advanced transwarp technology."

"Me neither, but I haven't got a lot of choices here. Anyway, I'm sure Yalit will end up selling it to everyone, so it's not like we're going to see a power imbalance." He didn't mention all of the other very good reasons it was a bad idea. He couldn't tell T'Laren what he was actually doing in front of the Ferengi monitoring them.

"Still, I think it's a matter for concern."

"Who's the former god here, you or me? Trust me, I know more about issues of species' accessing advanced technology than your Federation ever will. I don't suggest you try this at home, but I do know what I'm doing."

"I hope so," she said, sounding troubled. He didn't blame her. He was troubled, too. But he didn't want to worry her by telling her how high the stakes were; there was nothing T'Laren could do to protect herself, and he'd already seen that her much-vaunted Vulcan control wasn't doing her much good when it came to her feelings about things like being sexually harassed. Telling her that if he didn't behave himself Yalit would sell her to the Romulans as a breeding slave struck him as something that would bother her rather more than being groped by the Ferengi here, and he didn't want to put that burden on her when there was nothing she could do about it.

His Ferengi escort entered the room. "See? You have all the things you asked for, human," the first one sneered. "Now the Lady Yalit wants to see you in engineering."

"Fine. Let's go see if you Ferengi have any capacity to understand elementary physics at all. My bet's on 'no.'"

Q followed them back to engineering.

While Q was gone, T'Laren set about folding and putting away her clothes. She didn't have many- she tended to rely on the replicators- but having any at all made her greatly relieved. The replicator had also produced a solvent for cleaning clothes with sonics, and she took Q's and her own outfits from yesterday and the overlarge clothing of Q's she'd been wearing today and cleaned them in the sonic shower. She had to be somewhat grateful that the Ferengi used sonics to wash their clothes, at least; washing clothes with water would have been massively inefficient.

Lunch showed up while she was working. It simply came out of the replicator, no need to have guards enter the room. She'd wondered how long it would take them to realize how much safer that was for them. This time it was plomeek soup and garlic bread, a big improvement over salad. However, the same slightly nasty aftertaste was present in this meal as had been in her salad. She wondered if she were coming down with an illness that made most of her food taste off, or if there was a problem with the replicator. Ferengi ate mushrooms; maybe Q's mushrooms had been fresh, and the unpleasant aftertaste was a replicator side effect.

She dumped Q's used towels down the disposal chute and was gratified to see new towels appear in the replicator. They were definitely running a Ferengi hotel program; such programs conserved both replicator energies and the cost of maid service by expecting guests to dispose of their own used linens, and generating new ones only when they registered that the old ones had gone down the disposal. Unfortunately, since Q's bedsheets weren't replicated, they couldn't get fresh ones and would have to wash them. Q could do that himself, though. T'Laren was willing to clean up a bit to keep their captivity bearable, but she wasn't going to be Q's maid- especially not when surrounded by people who probably expected her to do exactly that on the basis of her genitalia. She would, however, clean the blanket Q had provided her with.

As she finished that up, and came back out into the suite looking for something else to do, the door opened and three Ferengi came in. One was the fellow she'd almost managed to nerve-pinch by tricking him into thinking she'd do sexual favors for him. She didn't recognize the other two, and wondered how many Ferengi were on this ship. Or, presumably, their own ship. The Ferengi ship must be staying with Ketaya; there wasn't enough room aboard Ketaya for the number of different Ferengi she'd seen.

"Your boyfriend asked our grandmother about using the swimming pool," one of them said, a goofy grin on his face. "We saw you like to keep in shape. Did you wanna go swimming?"

This was transparent. They'd been watching her exercise, and they wanted to see her in a swimsuit. A totally disproportionate surge of anger nearly overwhelmed her, but she forced it down before it reached her face. Anger, at their voyeurism? How illogical. It was understandable to be angry when they molested her or dismissed her opinions, but if they were offering her a chance to exercise, the fact that their ulterior motive was to leer at her in a swimsuit was irrelevant. "Yes, actually, I'd find that very helpful. Are you offering to escort me?"

"Oh, yeah," the one she'd almost tricked said, practically drooling. "We can take you swimming."

"You need to understand, then, that I am not free to share... favors... with any of you. I am under Q's protection and he has specifically requested that I do no such thing." If there had only been one, or perhaps even two, she might have used a sexual offer to trick them and then overpower them. With three, any such attempt would not succeed, and she had no desire to actually be molested. It rather galled her that she had to invoke Q's name to protect herself, but people who saw women as property would be much more inclined to leave women alone if they thought of them as belonging to other men. "If you are offering to take me swimming, I would certainly expect you to keep me under guard, and... watch me." What she was saying disgusted her far, far more than it should. Where was her control? She'd done worse than this in her life. Inviting Ferengi to watch her while she swam wasn't nearly on a par with sleeping with a Romulan so he would ignore any possible holes in her cover story, let alone what she'd had to do at the end to get away safely. "But I am concerned that if you touched me it would anger Q enough that he would kill himself, and I can't allow that."

"No, no," the first one said. "We'll just... watch you, while you swim. So you don't get away. Your man can't object to you getting some exercise, can he?" He idly reached up and ran finger and thumb over the edge of his earlobe. A wave of violent emotion, the desire to break in his face with her fist, rip at his earlobe until it tore off, surged through her. Control. She forced it down again. Maintaining her physical conditioning was extremely important if she was to have a hope of getting herself and Q out of here. Ferengi could fondle their earlobes all they wanted; it didn't touch her. It wouldn't touch her. Why was she having a hard time with this?

"Then allow me to change." She ruffled through her pile of clothing to get her swimsuit.

"You could change right here, we wouldn't mind," the second one she didn't recognize piped up.

She gave him a hard look, letting just the tiniest fraction of the rage she felt show in her eyes. "No. I will change in the bathroom. Escort me when I come out."

Her swimsuit was reasonably decorous—one piece, streamlined—and under most circumstances it wouldn't enter her mind that it was immodest in any way. In this case, though, she found herself wishing for a full-body covering suitable for swimming. She forced the embarrassment down. No one can humiliate you without your consent. I need only choose not to feel humiliated, and there is nothing then that they can do to me. She really did need the exercise.

The Ferengi stared at her as she came out. T'Laren was surprised they weren't drooling. Don't their own women run around nude in their homes? Why is a lightly clad woman so interesting to them? But then, it was probably precisely because she wasn't Ferengi that it mattered to them. She deliberately gave them only the most cursory of glances and then didn't bother to look back, keeping her eyes focused on the path to the swimming pool.

Once she was at the pool, she dove in on the deep end and began swimming as hard as she could. The pool was unusually cold today; she was usually better acclimated to human-normal temperatures than this. Perhaps the Ferengi had lowered the temperature, since it was somewhat chillier on Ferenginar than most humans preferred. She made the mistake of glancing up, once, and saw her captors stroking their own earlobes, eyes fixed on her. It didn't matter. It couldn't matter. She pushed herself—how long could she go without having to take a breath? How quickly could she do a lap? How quickly could she do one while holding her breath?

She hadn't had time to get out of shape—she was just as fast, just as strong a swimmer, as she'd been before. Somehow this wasn't challenging her enough. There was too much anger in her, too much emotion to force down, and no matter how hard she focused on her swimming it wasn't hard enough, physical enough, exhausting enough. The anger was still there. It was absurd. T'Laren had actually had sex with a target on an intelligence mission, after years of nothing except sharing Soram's pon farr. The fact that some annoying little cretins were enjoying themselves watching her swim should mean absolutely nothing. Why couldn't she overcome this anger? It wasn't even fear. If it was fear that they might take things farther than just watching, she could understand why it was so hard to master. But no, she wasn't afraid of that. The thought that they might try to rape her just filled her with righteous fury and a profound desire to do physical violence. No fear at all. Why anger, then? What was wrong with her?

After an hour she realized that she simply was not going to be able to swim hard enough to overcome the anger, not while the Ferengi were still watching. She climbed out of the pool and stalked over to them. "Return me to Q's quarters."

"You sure? You could swim a little while longer…"

"Yes. Return me now." She started for the door, expecting them to follow her. They were supposedly keeping her prisoner, after all. It would be rather bad for them if she managed to get enough of a head start on them that she could run and hide. Though it was a nice fantasy.

They followed her back to Q's quarters, leering and giggling to themselves. Once she was inside the quarters, she turned toward the Ferengi. "Thank you for allowing me access to the swimming pool." She then turned around and proceeded to completely ignore them. For a few seconds they hovered in the doorway before they finally got the idea that the show was over, and left. The door shut behind them. Experimentally T'Laren tried the manual door opening. It didn't work, and she hadn't really expected it to.

She didn't take a shower. She felt on edge, still angry, still full of restless energy. A long shower with water might help her to overcome the anger but would do nothing for the energy. She was jumping out of her skin. T'Laren changed to her workout clothes and used the center of the room to do first stretching, then aerobic exercises, and then martial arts katas. At first she performed the katas slowly, the way they were supposed to be done, controlled gestures to practice proper form, discipline and self-mastery. It didn't last. The aerobics hadn't taken the edge off.

She began doing her katas faster, harder, kicking and striking blows as if she were on a holodeck fighting hologram opponents no one else could see. The thought occurred to her that the Ferengi were probably watching her exercise- if her swim had excited them so much, she was sure the exercise in skimpy workout clothes wasn't much better. A sudden spike of fury overwhelmed her. Let them watch. Let them learn what she could do, if they approached her too closely. She began envisioning them as opponents, seeing Ferengi in her mind's eye, striking out at them. She aimed for eyes, and lobes, high kicks to the head, low brutal kicks to the genitals. Hard chops to the throat. She didn't know if they could tell that her imaginary opponents were Ferengi rather than more average-sized humanoids, but it didn't matter. If she couldn't control the emotion through meditation or through exhausting herself alone, she would do it through catharsis.

It was easily another hour later when she came back to herself. Breathing hard, all muscles protesting and exhausted, she finally felt somewhat more at peace. The anger was still there, would come back if she dwelled on it, but she could lock it away with meditation now. She went into the bathroom and got into the shower, reveling in the feel of water as hot as she could stand it sluicing over her. Her skin sang at the touch of water, reveling in it the way humans apparently reveled in fur. Physical exhaustion and the pleasure of hot water dancing over her body finally let her relax. It felt as if she hadn't been able to do that in days. Which was, logically, ridiculous, as they'd only been kidnapped yesterday.

When she was done, and wearing her regular clothes again, she went to the bedroom of the suite to sit on the floor and meditate. It worked this time; she managed to completely blot out the passage of time until Q finally showed up, looking completely strung out and exhausted. He flung himself on the couch, sprawling with one arm over his eyes.

"How about you bring me my slippers and the paper?" he said.

"I haven't got a paper to bring you. Do you actually have slippers?"

"Yes, but it was a joke. Though if you're volunteering… I have had a really hard day." He kicked off his boots.

"I have a better idea." She came over to sit next to him on the couch. "Either sit up or turn over, and I'll rub your back."

"You know, that is actually the best idea I've heard all day?" He sat up and looked at her. "Sometimes life is actually not a complete, unrelieved hell. Who knew?"

She slid next to him on the couch and reached up to his neck. His skin was cool, like summer rain on a hot day. T'Laren blinked- that mental analogy was very odd. Yet it seemed somehow reassuring, relaxing and pleasant, to touch him. And gratifying, how easily he responded to the easing of pain. Q moaned and almost fell backward against the couch, as if collapsing into her touch. "You cannot possibly imagine how desperately I need this."

"The muscles behaving as if akin to titanium cable was something of a clue, however."

"Oh, I guess so. Mmm. Did you know the Ferengi are even stupider than they look?"


"Yalit has some intelligence- maybe a spoonful or two of brains in that head- but she's spent so long channeling it into nothing but the gruesome pursuit of profit that it's ossified to scientific ideas. And none of her sons have the slightest capacity for higher thought. It's really disturbing to imagine that these people managed to build a warp drive in the first place. I'm guessing someone sold it to them, actually."

"Yes, that's understood to be the case. Are all of these people Yalit's children?"

"Not directly, no, but they're all apparently either her sons, her grandsons, and possibly her great-grandsons. Which hardly surprises me. If you're Ferengi and you're taking orders from a woman, I imagine you'd need to keep that in the family or it could get scandalous."

"She has an impressively large family."

"Not shocked. Building up an impressively large family is probably the only reason why a somewhat intelligent being would go live in a place where she's expected to be naked and subservient. Personally I think she'd have been better off becoming wealthy off her inventions first and then paying some studly young Ferengi boy to be her breeding partner without ever actually going back to her homeworld, but who knows, maybe the whole subservience thing gives her a little thrill. Oh, yes. Right there. Ooohh."

"Did you actually ask her to arrange for me to be allowed to swim? That was very thoughtful of you."

He stiffened slightly. "I did… but I thought she said no." He turned his head. "How did you know? Did they…?"

"Three of the Ferengi came and offered to escort me to the swimming pool. Given the need I have to keep to an exercise regimen, I accepted."

Q stood up abruptly and spun on his heel to look down at her. "Are you insane?"

T'Laren blinked. "What?"

He threw his hands in the air. "Why am I doing all this to protect you if you just stroll off into the woods with any big bad wolf that offers to let you get some exercise? You wouldn't come with me to engineering, you let three Ferengi drag you off to god knows where-"

"One needn't invoke the knowledge of a deity. It was a swimming pool."

"Yeah, and when they said, 'Hey, little Vulcan girl, want some candy?' you were actually stupid enough to believe them?"

"As you see, I was left unmolested."

"That's luck compensating for near-criminal stupidity!"

She stood up as well. If she was going to have an argument with Q it was better to do so on an equal footing. "I didn't think the level of threat they posed was sufficient to justify refusing. Particularly since they could have simply walked into this room and stunned me if they were willing to risk you killing yourself in retaliation."

"And that's why you should have come with me to engineering! What'd you think, I was asking you to come with me because I was scared of the big bad Ferengi?"

"I didn't see how it would be preferable to be surrounded by them in close quarters while you needed all your concentration to negotiate with Yalit."

"But you thought it was a good idea to go swimming with them?"

"I did not go swimming with them. They remained on the side of the pool."

"And I'm sure they had the best of intentions and were perfect gentlemen."

"No, of course not. They extended the invitation so they could watch a woman in a swimsuit. I'm well aware of this. However, it would be illogical for me to be overly concerned with voyeurism. They cannot harm me simply by looking at me."

"They can damn well harm you by raping you, T'Laren. Or giving you that drug you were talking about. You are such a Federation citizen!"

"What do you mean by that?"

"The whole universe doesn't operate by Federation ideals! We haven't got anyone guaranteeing us basic sentient rights here, and no matter how many pretty speeches we deliver about the dignity of sentient life, these creatures are perfectly willing to treat us as non-people. You can't expect to keep yourself safe if you go waltzing off with them anytime they make you a nice offer!"

"Believe me, Q, I am far better acquainted with the dangers that face a woman in this universe than you are."

"You sure about that? I've spent millions of years watching sentient beings prey on each other."

"And I have had Starfleet training. They do not send us out into a universe where many humanoid species discriminate against or prey on women without teaching us what to be wary of." She decided not to mention that she actually had been raped once. At the moment she felt extraordinarily defensive and angry, infuriated that Q would be angry with her over this issue. "I realize that for purposes of keeping control of the Ferengi you need to allow them to think you my jealous mate, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't behave as if it were true when we are alone. I am much better experienced than you are at protecting myself."

"I'm not your jealous mate! I just don't want-" He broke off. "Forget it. I'm going to take a shower."

"Q. I can take care of myself."

"Whatever." He stalked off into the bathroom.

The sonic shower came on, at the range she could hear. On top of everything else the irritation was simply too much. She did not quite stomp over to the bathroom to tell him to retune it-stomping would be very undignified for a Vulcan.

Before she could get there, Q stuck his head out of the bathroom. "Hey, I need some help in here."


"Don't worry, I'm perfectly modest. But I need you for something."

"Then you're going to need to retune the sonic shower. I can hear it, and it's quite irritating."

"That's what I need help with. I can't hear it, exactly, but I can feel it and it's grating. You're probably more experienced with adjusting the controls to get rid of ultrasonics than I am."

"Very well." T'Laren was somewhat relieved that he wasn't actively out to irritate her.

As she entered the bathroom and the door slid shut behind her, Q stood between her and the shower. "Sorry about the noise, but we need it. I didn't want to tell you this where the Ferengi can hear, so I figure between the sonics and you not having put full sensors in the bathroom, we can have a few minutes of privacy at least."

This was not what she'd expected at all. She perked up slightly- Q was obviously actively thinking about their predicament and how to resolve it, which was actually more than she'd expected of him. "All right. I can hear you- the noise is an irritant, but it's not loud enough to drown you out."

"Yeah, I figured." He closed the cover of the toilet and sat down on it. "Listen, T'Laren. You're only safe when I can see you. If they go for you while I'm there I can pretend to kill myself, but what am I going to do if I'm not there? They might call my bluff, and quite aside from the consequences to you I have no way to protect either of us if they stop believing I can kill myself."

"Given how much financial investment you represent, why would they take the risk simply for a brief pleasure?"

"Because they're playing much more hardball than I thought. I thought things might be bad- that's why I asked you to sleep in my room last night- but today-"

"Wait. You asked me to sleep in your room for my protection?"

"Well, honestly, T'Laren, did you really think I thought you could chase off the monster under the bed or something? The things I face in the night, you can't do a damn thing about. And if there was something you could do it'd probably be something I'd like less than the nightmares. I actually couldn't stand having you in there. If I got five minutes of sleep last night I'd be shocked. No, it was for you."

"Why didn't you say so?"

"Right, I'm going to explain in front of the Ferengi listening to the monitors that they could sneak in at night while I'm sleeping and drag you off without me knowing, in case they hadn't figured it out."

When had an alien shapechanger replaced Q? She stared at him, feeling a sudden and totally uncharacteristic desire to hug him. It had been one thing when he'd bluffed the Ferengi in the first place… but he'd deliberately allowed her, and the Ferengi watching them, to think he was afraid and wanted her protection so as not to risk her. It was the first genuinely selfless thing she could think of Q doing the whole time she'd known him. Although, she remembered Anderson telling her that Q had risen to match the best humanity had to offer during the fight with the Borg. Certain types of adversity seemed to draw out a much more positive aspect of his personality.

"Thank you," she said, temporarily stunned. "I… I am still not sure you needed to take such a step, but I am very grateful that you would do such a thing when you thought I was in danger."

"Yeah, well, you're in more danger than I knew last night. And so am I. Yalit told me if I didn't cooperate she'd have me stunned, sedated and put in stasis until I'm sold off. Or in other words she's not afraid of me killing myself anymore. I did my best to convince her that if she sells me off and then I kill myself her customers are going to be just a trifle upset with her, but… I think she's serious. I told her I'd teach her how Lhoviri's transwarp works if she would guarantee your safety. But I just don't know. They could drag you off and do whatever they want and then tell me that if I stop working for them they'll do it again. Giving them transwarp is a bit more open-ended than killing myself."

"I… didn't know that. I didn't believe I was in danger today- I still don't. They were rather more interested in voyeuristic amusements than actually touching me."

"Yeah, well, maybe those ones were. What would you have done if they'd brought you to the swimming pool and then half a dozen of their brothers and cousins were waiting there to ambush you? I know you're some kind of kung fu master and all but they have phasers, and they're obviously not afraid to use them."

T'Laren took a deep breath. "If they do not use farr t'gahn on me, they may do what they wish to me. I am Vulcan. Rape is not a fate worse than death, and if it would help free us from captivity I would endure. If they do use farr t'gahn I would most likely kill them all."

"I thought you said it would kill you."

"It would. It arouses the plak tow, the blood fever. Only a combination of sex and a mind meld would save my life then, and I cannot meld with Ferengi. But before I died I would be consumed with madness- violence as much as lust. You know… what I am capable of when my emotions are distorted by the plak tow."

"Yeah, yeah, you're a badass. How are you going to kill them if they tie you up or something? I mean… I really don't want to be coming up with horrible things they could do to you, or me for that matter, but I have seen just about every evil sentients can commit on each other. And it really wouldn't much make up for your death to know that you took out a whole bunch of them with you."

"And you think this is a serious possibility?"

"I don't know. But I've had quite enough people die on me in even this brief mortal lifetime. I don't need having you added to the list. Besides which, your whole schpiel about being such a stalwart Vulcan and rape means nothing to you and blah blah blah is complete baloney. I may not be an expert on getting people to do what I want but I am an expert on telling when people are upset and frightened, and you are upset and frightened, Vulcan or no. You would not want to put up with being molested, or worse."

She thought of how angry she'd been today just to know the Ferengi were deriving sexual pleasure from watching her. Unfortunately Q had a point. It was easy to forget sometimes that his complete incompetence at making people like him didn't actually arise from any lack of perception of other people's emotional states. "If you consider this a serious threat, I will not allow them to take me to the swimming pool again. However, if I'm disturbing your sleep I probably should not stay in your room at night."

"I am so tired," he said, putting his head in his hands. "As soon as we're done here I'm going to bed and I'm going to pass out." He looked up at her again. "I do think you should sleep in my room, and I don't think it's going to keep me awake. At least not tonight. Whereas wondering if you're still safe might."

"I am not going to sleep that soon. For me it's still early."

"If you're awake you can at least yell for me. I know my skills at verbal defense aren't exactly Starfleet-issue derring-do, but… they won't listen to you. At all. They just don't care. At least I have some proven ability at getting them to leave you alone. Just promise me you'll come to my room before you decide to go to sleep or whatever it is you do."

There was a loud banging at the door. "You two, get out of there!"

Q went to the door of the bathroom. "Do you mind? We've been trying to fix the damn sonic shower!"

The Ferengi standing there with his phaser scowled at him. "You will ask us for engineering help, you don't try to fix it yourself."

"Oh yes, because you've been so responsive in the past." He pushed his way past the Ferengi. "I've had a long and exhausting day. Is that dinner over there? It better be edible or it's going down your shirt."

"You aren't to be in that room together. Especially not with the sonic shower on."

"Oh, waah. You can't play voyeur. My heart bleeds for you."

"Our orders are to keep an eye on the two of you. You've already tried to escape once."

"I keep telling you, the air circulation cut off."

T'Laren walked over to the dinner trays. She was actually quite hungry after the exertions of the day. The meal that awaited her was a traditional Vulcan dish, hearty and full of legumes and spice. While Q was trading snark with the Ferengi, she sat down to eat.

The Ferengi left, and Q plopped himself down on the couch in front of the dinner tray. "Spaghetti and meatballs. Wonderful. If only I had anything vaguely resembling an appetite."

"Eat as much of it as you can," T'Laren advised. "You need to keep your strength up." She looked at him carefully. He looked much healthier than he had when she first met him, his gauntness almost entirely filled out back to the build he'd had when he was omnipotent. The exercise and diet regimen had been good for him; his skin looked healthier, in better color and without the dull texture of sickness. His posture was better, his eyes were more alive, brighter and more engaged, than they'd been when she'd met him.

"Do I have spaghetti sauce on my chin or something?"

"No, why?"

"You're staring at me."

"I'm merely reflecting how much healthier you look." And how much more attractive. That was totally inappropriate to say, though. Actually it was fairly inappropriate to think as well. She'd been Q's therapist; any sort of romantic relationship with him was thoroughly unethical, even though he had fired her. Why had she allowed her mind to even drift in that direction? "You won't be able to keep it up if you don't eat, though."

"I'm really tired."

"Well, do what you can." She frowned very slightly at her bowl. The spices had masked it at first, but that unpleasant aftertaste was still there. "Q, can I try your dinner?"

"Eat the whole thing. Be my guest." He pushed it over to her.

"I can't eat the whole thing. It has meatballs." She swirled a small amount of spaghetti and sauce onto her fork, avoiding the meatballs, and tasted it. It was fine. There was no bitter taste to it.

Either they were getting their vegetarian menu from a corrupted database, or she was being poisoned.

She thought of the inappropriate and severe anger she'd suffered today, and felt very, very cold. T'Laren pushed the plate away. "Q, will you taste my food for me?"

He sneered. "I didn't situate myself on top of the Terran food chain to eat like a rabbit."

"Just taste it. Please."

With obvious bad grace Q took a bite, and spluttered. "That's disgusting! How can you eat that?" He immediately downed his entire drink in several large gulps.

"Can you describe what's disgusting about it?"

"Oh, where shall I start? Perhaps with the fresh taste of grated aspirin all over the thing? Or perhaps the mouth-numbing spices akin to having a small nuclear explosion go off on your tongue? Or perhaps the awful texture of beans that might as well be giant chunks of sand?"

"Grated aspirin. What does grated aspirin taste like?"

"Horrible." Q shuddered. "It's a painkiller so simple and so old that it's not restricted in the replicators, at least not if you're not a suicide risk. I used to take it all the time in my first year on Starbase 56. If you actually bite down on the things or powder them, they're the most disgusting, bitter, horrible-"

"Bitter. My food is bitter."

"Yes! What was your first clue?"

She took a deep breath. "This dish should not be bitter. Neither should my salad from this morning have been, nor should my plomeek soup at lunch. I am being poisoned."

Q's eyes went wide. "No. No, they- what with? What are they giving you?"

"I don't know. I've had difficulty controlling my emotions today. Vulcans are less able to taste bitter or sweet than humans are; I thought that if I was not simply imagining it or suffering from some sort of illness, you would be able to taste whatever it was more strongly than I could, and it seems that was accurate."

"Is it… that stuff? They threatened to use?"

"I don't know." She stared at her plate of food. "I have felt this way before, and it was not associated with… what we spoke of. It was associated with my… mental difficulties, before that time arrived."

"When you couldn't control your emotions and Starfleet kicked you out?"

"Put me on involuntary medical leave, but yes, essentially. I could not control my emotions properly then. Some of the symptoms I have experienced remind me of that time."

"Well, then, I had better get an explanation and you had better get a cure or someone is not getting any transwarp." He looked up at the ceiling. "Do you hear me? Whatever the hell you're doing to her, you stop it right now, reverse it and fix her, or you get nothing! Do you hear me?"

He turned back to T'Laren. "Eat my spaghetti. Maybe that'll dilute it, if you get some food that doesn't have it."

"You need your food, Q."

"I'll eat the meatballs. I am really not hungry. Especially not now. Do you need water? Maybe if we give you dozens of cups of water we can flush it out of your system."

"Actually, that would only make me very fat. Vulcans retain water. Desert evolved, remember?"

"Hmm, okay, we won't do that. But eat my spaghetti. And drink some water. Your drink might be poisoned but the water probably isn't."

He actually did have a point. She was very hungry, and if she were being poisoned with something that lowered her control of her emotions, she did need to keep her strength up. T'Laren ate Q's spaghetti, pushing the meatballs to the side of the plate, where Q dispiritedly plucked at them with a fork.

The door opened, and a very young Ferengi, hardly more than a boy, came in carrying a second dinner tray and a bowl of grapes. "I'm sorry," he said, looking straight at T'Laren and then ducking his head with an expression of obvious embarrassment. "My mother sent me to apologize to the both of you, and give you assurances. It's not going to happen again."

"What is it?" T'Laren asked, her own voice sounding shockingly hard and angry to her.

"It's dicydrenaline. They were putting it in your food for a joke. I'm really sorry. Here." He put the tray and the bowl down in front of T'Laren. "Here's a replacement for your dinner, and a dessert for an apology. The dose wasn't very high. I can get a hypo with an antidote if you want."

"No." She relaxed very slightly. "If it's dicydrenaline, and they cease to put it in the food, I will recover quickly enough." She took a bite of the replacement dinner. "Much better."

"Let me taste that. So I can identify that crap they were putting in your food. What's it do?"

"It makes Vulcans drunk, effectively. It lowers inhibitions, decreases emotional control. Here."

Q took a bite. "Okay. This is still absolutely awful, but there's at least no grated aspirin in it. Did you bring anything else for us to drink, rodent boy?"

"I can get you something from the replicator," the boy said eagerly, ignoring Q's insult. "What do you want?"

"Tipharean bubble juice. Or root beer, whichever."

"I would like very cold water, please," T'Laren said.

The Ferengi went to the replicator, placed their orders, and got their drinks. No password control. It was obviously all being done at the level of voice recognition. Interesting. Q gulped half his drink again, while T'Laren sipped hers. Dicydrenaline. There were so many worse possibilities it could have been, and it was so obvious. The Ferengi had probably thought to lower her inhibitions, destroy her emotional control, and then either rape her or blackmail her into sex, when she would not have had the discipline to keep them from seeing her reactions. Q was right. She thought of the giggling, leering men stroking their earlobes as she swam. Sooner or later the terrible word picture Q had painted would have come true- they'd have taken her swimming until her guard was down, or let her exhaust herself swimming first, one day… She shook her head slightly. It wouldn't happen now. She had taken the drug before by hypo- it really wasn't much like alcohol for humans in that Vulcans had never drunk it for recreational purposes. Before the time of Surak, some had smoked the plant it was found in, but she had read that it was too bitter to eat, and now she knew why.

When her food was done, she put a grape in her mouth, and almost gasped. It was incredibly sweet, far more than she expected from a grape, but with a sharp bite to it cutting the sweetness down just to the level where it was pleasant instead of cloying. "These are modified," she said to the Ferengi boy.

He beamed. "You like them? They're replicator modified for Vulcan palates."

"They are delicious," she admitted.

"Gimme one of those," Q said. He popped the grape into his mouth, and almost choked. "T'Laren, these are fermented!"

"Interesting." She took another grape and worked on analyzing the taste. Q was right. The sugar levels of the grapes was much higher than normal grapes, and the tang was alcohol, cutting the taste. Vulcans weren't terribly susceptible to alcohol; in great quantities it could affect them as it did humans, but there wasn't enough in these grapes to affect her. There was enough to affect Q, though, particularly since he was more used to synthehol than the real stuff. "You're right."

"What, trying to get her drunk again is your way of apologizing?" Q snarled at the Ferengi.

"It's all right, Q. It doesn't affect me as it does humans- it just changes the taste slightly. These have a much higher sugar content than ordinary grapes; without the alcohol to cut the taste they'd be too sweet to bear, but as it is they are in fact quite good."

"I'll take your word for it. I don't really need to get drunk. Although if you save a few I probably could use them the next time I have to spend a day spoonfeeding idiots."

She nodded at the Ferengi boy. "Thank you. This was a very pleasant gesture."

He grinned, embarrassed, and then ran off, out of their cell.

"You do realize, there was nothing altruistic about that apology? Yalit obviously didn't want to risk me quitting my job."

"Of course. But there is no reason why I needed to be rude to the boy. He seemed sincere. Perhaps they don't develop the misogyny until they're older and farther from the influence of their mothers." She looked at Q. "I wish to apologize. You were most likely right about their intentions regarding the swimming; they'd have waited until the dicydrenaline had taken full effect in another day or two, but eventually that was most likely their intent."

"I am distressingly often right about horrible things people like to do to each other," Q said tiredly. He stood up. "I'm going to bed. I can barely see straight, and I haven't had nearly enough coffee to stay awake after the day I've had."

"That is the best plan, most likely. Get some sleep. I'll be in when I need to rest." Actually she could go into her meditations now if she wanted, but after Q had admitted to her that he hadn't slept at all last night, she would leave him some time to fall asleep before going in.

She found one of his books- he had a number of real books, generally antique classics- and sat down to try to read it, but she couldn't concentrate. Perhaps after being poisoned with dicydrenaline for a day it hadn't been wise to eat so many fermented grapes. Alcohol didn't normally have any sort of profound effect on her, but she felt unusually unfocused. Her mental restlessness was matched by some slight amount of physical restlessness, counterpointed by the weariness she felt from her exertions today. Perhaps more exercise would help.

T'Laren returned to the katas, this time without the anger that had driven her earlier today. This time she was aiming for focus, not catharsis. Martial arts was a form of achieving discipline and focus while dispelling physical energy that couldn't be released by ordinary meditation. She tried to put herself into them fully, to let her mind narrow down to nothing more than the sensation of movement and the effort to perform precisely the correct movements. After some time she recognized it wasn't really working. She still couldn't focus, and now she was tired.

She sat on the couch, intending to meditate. Her mind drifted. Q had surprised her greatly today. She wished she could take credit for it, but from what Anderson had said about the Borg, and for that matter from what Picard had said when she was on the Enterprise collecting information about Q from everyone who knew him in preparation for taking the assignment, she knew she hadn't taught Q selflessness. He'd been capable of it from his first day of being human- perhaps from when he'd been omnipotent, though she suspected such a powerful being would rarely if ever be called on to sacrifice anything of any real importance to him. Depression made all beings much more selfish and inwardly focused, and usually made them behave badly in social situations; all she'd done was help him overcome that, letting qualities he'd obviously always had come to the forefront. It was as if she was seeing him for the first time.

She'd been obsessed with helping him because that was what Lhoviri had demanded of her in order to undo her crime. This was the first time she felt strongly that he was someone who had deserved what she had done for him, in any greater sense than the general belief she held as a mental health professional that no one should have to suffer from depression. She had tried to keep him from throwing her out of his life because… well, she hadn't been entirely sure why not, except that she had no real reason for existing if she couldn't continue to try to help him. Now she felt as if he was becoming someone- or had always been someone, and was just able to show it now- that she wanted to be friends with.

Her eyes followed the patternless expanse of the ceiling, drifted over the walls. She was so tired. She'd made Q a promise, but surely she could sit for a few moments before going to his room. Let him have a bit longer to get to sleep. He needed it, and deserved it after what he'd done since they'd been captured. She didn't have to get up just yet.

T'Laren heard them before she saw them. The door opened, and she wanted to turn around, but her body was strangely heavy, almost paralyzed. She heard giggling male voices. The Ferengi who'd taken her to swim. She needed to stand up, to tell them to leave the room. It was as if she was in a gravity field of several gee. Everything was too heavy and she couldn't even really see right. Some sort of strange tunnel vision. They came to the couch where she sat, snickering, grasping their lobes and grinning. She tried to open her mouth to call Q, but no voice came out. The first of the leering Ferengi pulled her off the couch and pushed her down flat on the floor. The rug was thick, and she was sinking into it. She was wearing the swimsuit from before, and her limbs were so heavy because she was too tired from swimming, and she couldn't move. One of them was touching her legs, pulling them apart, and the first one was kneeling on her stomach. He undid the straphooks on the swimsuit and pulled it down, exposing her breasts, grasping them and fondling them as the DaiMon had done when they were first taken captive, and she couldn't move.

Rage overwhelmed her and broke the paralysis. She lunged forward and grabbed the Ferengi's head, twisting violently. He screamed, and then went silent with a loud cracking sound, and his body went limp. He was dead, and the pleasure that filled her at killing him was almost like sex. All control gone, she came to her feet, knife in her hand, longing to bury it hard in one of her tormentors, cut him open and watch him scream and bleed his life away…

With a gasp of horror, T'Laren opened her eyes.

There were no Ferengi in the room. She had fallen asleep without being able to properly meditate, and she had dreamed. Had dreamed. Even as her conscious mind reeled in self-disgust she remembered the sheer animal ecstasy of the murder she'd committed in the dream, the bloodlust that had consumed her.

Obviously the dicydrenaline hadn't fully worn off. That, and she always had awful nightmares when she dreamed without meditating first. She was breathing hard, skin cold. Not quite shaking. She wouldn't lose that much control.

She went into Q's room. She had meant to keep her promise to him. And perhaps the rape scenario in the dream had been her brain warning her of her vulnerability, trying to wake her up. She wasn't sure that his plan to have her sleep in his room would actually be needed, or effective for that matter, but she'd made a promise, and as long as he was actually asleep, it couldn't hurt.

Q still slept with a dim nightlight. He'd curled up tightly in the blankets. As usual, he looked much more vulnerable, fragile and frightened, in his sleep- though at least he didn't look as if he were just a few meters from death's door anymore. She sat down on the bed, breathing deeply, looking at him. It was ridiculous. They could still come in here with stunners if they wanted to take her, and with the groveling apology they'd delivered it was apparently unlikely Yalit would allow them to touch her as long as Q cooperated with her. She didn't actually need to be in Q's room to be safe. And yet she did feel safer. Illogical, but there it was. The room smelled of human, but to her that was childhood and safety and love with her foster parents. That was probably why she was having this visceral reaction. Possibly any human would have done.

He looked so vulnerable, so… she didn't know what, exactly. She felt enormously protective of him, and tender. An urge almost overwhelmed her to reach out and stroke him, to push sweat-matted hair away from his forehead and pet him. She controlled it. It was totally inappropriate and it wouldn't have the reassuring effect she'd have intended; Q had been nearly killed in his sleep too many times to respond well to being touched while he was sleeping.

He was so beautiful.

She shook her head at the words her thoughts chose. He was healthy, and that made him more attractive. Beauty was not an adjective she should be applying.

But it was true. He was beautiful. Despite being terrified, desperate, totally untrained for this kind of situation, and in fairly severe danger himself, he had spent the last two days trying to protect her. And he hadn't even told her. He'd whined about what a horrible day he'd had, but he hadn't mentioned or sought sympathy for Yalit's threat to have him put in stasis if he didn't cooperate until he obviously felt he had to tell T'Laren to keep her out of danger. He'd let her think he was frightened for himself because that was what he'd thought he'd needed to do to keep her safe.

Tears pricked at her eyes. Vulcans were really, really bad at handling emotional overloads when their usual mechanisms of control weren't working properly. She got off the bed before she did something to completely humiliate herself and Q, such as breaking down crying because he was being so brave, or waking him up with her thoroughly unethical desire to touch him. Earlier she'd used the sonic shower to clean her bedsheets; they were still lying neatly folded on Q's dresser. She took them and laid them down on the floor. It was cold. Lately it was always cold, but it seemed that it was actually getting worse.

Sleep didn't come as easily as it should have. She was too tired, too unfocused to meditate, which was deeply unfortunate as she really needed to. That frightened her, after the nightmare she'd had. T'Laren lay on the floor, breathing deeply, drawing in the scent of the bedroom. The Ferengi had never even been in here. She couldn't smell them anymore. No one had really assaulted her. She hadn't really killed anyone. Only a dream.

Safety in numbers. Q would help defend her if they did attack, and Yalit apparently was putting a high priority on this transwarp thing. It was as safe as it could be, given their captivity.

Eventually she fell asleep.

Morning came at last but didn't leave her well-rested. Paradoxically, her body felt charged with restless energy, too much of it to sleep well, but her mind felt fogged and sleep-deprived. A combination of nightmares and the restlessness had kept her waking up frequently all night. When she could no longer stand lying on the cold floor trying to sleep, she tried to meditate, and failed as utterly as she had failed the night before. Q was still asleep, but she wasn't willing to stay in here and be silent, trying to avoid waking him, for any longer – if the Ferengi did attempt to come for her, as Q had feared, let them. She was, at least physically, wide awake, and the violence of a fight would do a lot to wake her up.

That was an incredibly stupid thing to think. She had to blink at her own idiocy. She wanted a fight? Evidently the dicydrenaline was taking quite some time to wear off. She hadn't felt this way – sluggish, stupid, and violent – since her mental breakdown. Vulcans weren't supposed to feel this way, ever.

As best as anyone had ever been able to determine, the proximate cause of her mental breakdown had been the telepathic rape she'd inflicted on Melor to save her life. He had figured out that she was a spy, despite her having slept with him for weeks in order to prevent exactly that, and had captured her and bound her, planning to turn her in or kill her. She had seduced him, playing on Romulan male fantasies of "converting" Vulcan women to the way of emotions and Romulan beliefs, and it had worked – he'd thought himself to be her lover; he'd never known she'd only slept with him to keep him from looking at her cover too closely. He'd been willing to believe that she had fallen in love with him. He'd left her bound – he wasn't that stupid. But he didn't understand Vulcan telepathy. Without her hands to touch the contact points it'd been harder to make a telepathic connection, but with all of his naked skin laid against all of hers, she didn't need the contact points. She'd invaded his mind during sex, paralyzed him, and ripped out all of his memories of her true identity, replacing them with false memories of bondage bedroom games. Of course, after he was done with sex he'd untied her, because by then she'd made him believe he'd tied her up for fun, not because she was a threat. And then she'd run, and returned to Federation space as soon as she could.

She'd done it to save her life, not for some prurient pleasure. But the fact had remained, she'd touched the mind of a man she'd been having sex with at the time, and it had fulfilled her as nothing but Soram's pon farr ever had. And she had hated herself for that. As a Starfleet officer, and later as an intelligence agent, she'd been prepared to kill or be killed. She'd been prepared to pretend to emotions she didn't feel, to use her body to accomplish her purposes, because a body was only a body and only telepathic intimacy could break her marriage vows. She had never expected to start actually feeling anything – she was a Vulcan. And she hadn't expected to feel pleasure in committing an act that not only broke her marriage vows but was itself one of the most horrible crimes a Vulcan could commit. The moral dilemma, the guilt, and the memory of pleasures she never experienced in her real life, had all conspired to shatter her control, and she had seriously considered leaving her Vulcan identity behind entirely. Soram had talked her back from that… and she had repaid him by killing him.

Lhoviri had sent her to the past, to study with Surak. The father of Vulcan philosophy had taught his techniques to people who'd never grown up with them, who had expected to fail at them as often as they succeeded. Surak's gentle lack of judgementalism, his acceptance of any horror his students might have committed in their pasts as long as they were dedicated to forsaking those sins and overcoming the emotionalism that had led them to commit such acts, had done far more good for her mental state than any modern Vulcan teacher, coming from the perspective that all Vulcans should be easily capable of such discipline, could give her. And for a long time she'd thought herself fully cured. But had she been? Dicydrenaline shouldn't evoke such powerfully violent feelings in her. It lowered Vulcan inhibitions and reduced the ability to control the emotions, but by itself it usually produced feelings of giddiness, excitement, an openness to pleasure and humor – at least in the literature she'd read. Vulcans who became extremely violent under its influence were mostly found to be suppressing an unusual amount of rage and violent desire in their everyday lives. And yes, she was a prisoner with an uncertain future, being sexually harassed by her captors, but did that really explain the violent feelings she was having? She hadn't felt this way when she'd been taken captive before, in her work as a Starfleet officer, even in worse conditions than this. She hadn't felt this way when she'd been raped.

Of course, she hadn't felt this way for most of the time that she'd been losing her control completely, either. She'd been just as likely to act out sexually, to giggle inappropriately, or to suffer sudden crying fits as she'd been to feel rage. The level of desire for violence she felt was something she associated with the moment she'd killed Soram – though she wasn't that far gone yet.

Was this dicydrenaline, or was this her old mental illness reasserting itself? Was this a delayed reaction to tr'Sahlassiu's mental invasion, or simply the stress of her captivity breaking down barriers she'd never built back up as well as she thought she had?

She exercised until breakfast arrived, trying to drive out the unwanted feelings of rage and overwhelming restlessness with physical activity, or at least tire herself enough that she could sleep. It didn't work. She wasn't hungry, either, despite the exercise, but at least when breakfast arrived, she figured she could wake Q up, and have someone to talk to in order to take her mind off its obsession with its own flaws. But that didn't last; Q drank his coffee, ate his omelet and bacon, complained about stupid things like the lack of cheese in the omelet, got dressed, and left to go help their captors develop transwarp, without giving T'Laren much opportunity to talk to him. She knew that wasn't his fault, that he had to do as Yalit was demanding, but she felt inappropriately angry about that as well, both at the Ferengi for taking him away and, absurdly, at him for going along with it.

She picked morosely at her own food. Although it seemed a perfectly palatable meal – toast with chalan paste and peanut butter – she had no appetite. In an effort to push back the tide of useless anger, since meditation wasn't working and the value of exercise seemed limited, she ate several of the grapes from last night. Vulcans didn't use sweets to improve their mood – generally Vulcans didn't acknowledge that they had moods that needed improving – but humans did, and T'Laren had used the technique as a child when the disciplines her teacher had tried to train her in failed, or when she needed not to control her emotions but to pretend to positive ones. Hopefully, at least the sugar would waken her appetite.

But the effect, unfortunately, was not what she had hoped. The fog of exhaustion lifted somewhat, but if anything she became more irritable, and the food less appetizing. Q had done a lousy job cleaning up the dead bugs, and there were still clothes on the floor, furniture in disarray, and although yesterday she'd thought she'd been thorough enough cleaning the smell of human urine out of the carpet, today she smelled it as strongly as she had yesterday. She started cleaning ferociously, attacking the dead bugs and the disarray as if the symptoms of her captivity were themselves the disease, and freeing herself of mess and smell would free her from the Ferengi.

It was hours before she thought the main room was clean enough to suit her. As she marched into the bedroom, planning simply to straighten it up a bit, the smell hit her again – the scent of male human. Q was as clean as he could reasonably keep himself under such circumstances – it wasn't the acid stench of ill, frightened or unhygienic human, merely the pure scent of a male human body. She gathered the sheets of the bed and breathed deeply, drinking in the small. A pulse of arousal shot through her, radiating upwards from her groin throughout her body.

Startled, T'Laren almost dropped the blankets. What was she doing? Where had that come from? She remembered the powerful sexual urges that used to overwhelm her, when she'd been ill, and shook her head very slightly in negation. If she was having another breakdown, that was the last thing she could afford to let herself feel. Q was the only available outlet for such desires – she would rather rip the Ferengi limb from limb than have sex with them – and it was one thing to indulge a need for casual sex with the average xenophilic human male space traveler she'd meet in bars on alien worlds. Quite another to make overtures to a virgin with serious hang-ups on the subject, who trusted you as his only real friend.

She was going to have to wash the sheets after all. She couldn't be reacting this way. Not when this drug was taking so long to leave her system. And that made no sense, either – she wasn't a psychiatrist or a doctor, but as a psychologist she had certainly studied the effects of mood-altering drugs on all the major Federation species, including her own. Dicydrenaline was supposed to be purged from a Vulcan's bloodstream within a few hours of the last dose. Had they put a time-released version in her food? It would have to have a very extended period – except for the grapes, she hadn't eaten in 12 hours.

T'Laren brought the sheets into the bathroom to wash them. The cleaning solvent she'd been given didn't handle the sheer volume of fabric very well – Q liked very plush blankets. It took forever, iteration after iteration of spraying with solvent and then turning the heavy blankets this way and that in the sonics. She thought of generations of women before her, using whatever technologies they had at the time to wash out the blankets their mates and children slept in. And then to her horror she found tears welling in her eyes and her chest growing tight. She had no children. With a history of mental illness she probably never would. She would never belong to that ancient sorority of motherhood, never be anchored to the future, and she was an orphan, cast adrift from the past. Soram had been supposed to bind her to Vulcan, connect her to the shared web of history and family. Instead he'd cast her aside. She was alone.

Furiously T'Laren flung the mass of blankets to the bathroom floor. This was unacceptable! She couldn't be getting emotional, to the point of weeping, over stupid issues like her lack of family. She was a prisoner and the man in her charge was depending on her to find a way to free them both. She had bigger things to worry about than if she would ever have children. This was stupid, none of this made any sense even given that they'd drugged her, and she would not lose control like this!

She stomped out to the other room to exercise again, but simple katas weren't enough. She needed impact, she needed violence. Methodically, albeit swiftly, she beat the wall within an inch of its nonexistent life, pretending it was a Ferengi and kicking and punching it as if it were alive.

Finally she was tired enough to feel some peace. She looked at the wall, which was dented and painted green in spots, and then at her knuckles, disinterestedly, like a doctor assessing a patient's injuries rather than a woman looking at what she'd done to her own hand. The knuckles were skinned and bruised, green smeared all over the back of her hand, but no serious injury. She felt languid, relaxed. The hand hurt but the pain was far away, more like pain felt through a mental link or pain distanced by the disciplines. At last, she thought, she would be able to meditate. Or sleep. Either would help.

She went back to the bedroom, sat on the now-bare mattress with legs crossed under her, and closed her eyes.

It had been bad enough having to teach fundamental principles of physics to typical run-of-the-mill mortal idiots. Teaching brain-dead Ferengi engineers how to make a Thetaran transwarp drive work on dilithium crystals was nothing short of awful. It would have been unbearable if he hadn't been lying through his teeth. It was actually much harder to devise consistent, plausible lies that worked in preliminary testing, and wouldn't make the ship blow up, than it would have been to tell the truth, but lying was simply much more satisfying. Every violation of the fundamental laws of reality that he could pass off on Yalit and her brood with a straight face was another shovel of dirt out of the tiger pit he was digging for them, and he found it grimly amusing that they had no idea what lurked under their feet.

Overall, he was miserable but hopeful. The groveling apology the Ferengi had delivered last night meant that the harassment would probably stop, or at least ease up. They'd provided edible food for breakfast and the amenities he needed to not feel positively bestial. And if they followed his instructions, the power crystals would blow spectacularly. He knew where he had stashed the extra crystals he had requisitioned from Yamato the night before they left; he doubted very strongly that the Ferengi would be able to find them. As soon as the power went out, he and T'Laren could… well, do something; fighting their way through the number of Ferengi on this ship seemed implausible, but Q also knew where the emergency distress beacons were and could probably amplify one to call back to Yamato.

The Ferengi engineers didn't take lunch breaks; they kept bowls of grubworms around and snacked on them incessantly, rather like Q had seen human engineers do with coffee. Until he'd met T'Laren Q had never eaten lunch, and he felt entirely too stressed, not to mention nauseated by the Ferengi eating grubworms, to feel any real hunger now, but he did demand refills of his coffee every time the cup ran low. By 1400 hours he was completely wired, almost hyperactive. Yalit had disappeared a while ago. This was both positive and negative - he hated having to deal with the grotesque little troll, but she was smarter than her sprogs had turned out, and easier to talk to on the level of pure physics.

Then she called him in to her office. Finally woke up from your nap, old woman? He strolled in insouciantly, pretending not the slightest concern as to what she might want him for. "You rang?"

Yalit nodded. "Gon. Sed. Hold him down."

What-? Almost before he could register what she'd said, the two Ferengi who'd escorted him in had grabbed his arms and shoulders. They shoved him down on the desk. Q resisted, throwing all his weight backwards, trying to pull free or at least keep them from pushing him down, but they were strong enough to force him into place. "What are you doing? Let me go!"

"You've been a bad, bad boy," Yalit said, her voice cold and mocking. She walked up to him and ran her hand through his hair. "You really thought you could get away with it, didn't you?"

"What are you talking about? Let me go! Are you trying to dislocate my shoulders or something?"

Her hand tightened, yanking his hair and pulling his head up to look at her. He screamed with the pain. "You've been lying to me. What was supposed to happen? Was the ship going to blow up and kill us all?"

"I don't know what you're talking about! And let go of the hair, I really don't need to go bald this week."

"Don't lie to me, little man," Yalit snarled. "You made a deal. You said you'd show me how to build and sell this transwarp drive. And you lied. You've tried to sabotage my work, make a fool of me, and I would be within my rights to put you in stasis right now, sell you to the Ceuli with instructions to take you out as soon as they're ready to kill you, and let my sons fuck your girlfriend as much as they want." Suddenly terrified, Q struggled harder, kicking and trying to push against the desk. Yalit knew. How had she known? This wasn't happening, it couldn't be. "But as you pointed out before, that doesn't get me transwarp. On the other hand, trusting you to do as you said doesn't seem to be getting me transwarp either. So... perhaps a small inducement to make you take me seriously. Some discipline, for your outrageous behavior."

"I'm not lying," Q said desperately. "It's not my fault if you're too stupid to-"

She slapped his face, hard. Q cried out. "Shut up. You lied, and you are going to be punished for it."

The two Ferengi holding him down clamped magnetic shackles on his wrists, holding his arms pinned low to either side of the desk. Someone behind him pushed something against the back of his knees, some sort of magnetic bar, perhaps, that held his legs immobilized against the desk. Q whimpered and tried futilely to pull free of the clamps. Sharp fingernails were touching him above the waist, scraping against his skin as they pulled his shirt up to his shoulders. "No- no, please-"

Yalit grabbed him by the hair against and pulled his head close to her mouth, whispering in his ear. Her breath might have made him retch if he hadn't been so frightened. "Do you know how I got offworld, to attend the Makropyrios? Do you know how, as a woman, I can attend offworld conferences? How I kept control of my own sons, why their fathers didn't take them? Do you have any idea what you're dealing with?"

"Please - let go -"

"You see, a Ferengi man isn't a man at all if he doesn't push his women around. If he hasn't got the lobes to control a woman in bed, who's going to trust that he's got the lobes for business? And that's a problem. Some men, you know, get tired of telling other people what to do all day. Some men want a spanking when they're bad, and then they want Mommy to kiss it better and tell them they're a good boy. And if their peers on Ferenginar were to find out they like that sort of thing, well..."

Oh, I see. Not just a whore, but a blackmailer. What a fine exemplar of moral rectitude you are, Yalit! He didn't say it. He was too frightened to say anything. Yalit continued. "So you see, you were wrong. I didn't sell my body. No more than any Ferengi woman, anyway. We all sell our bodies. What I sold was pain." She pinched and twisted his earlobe. "I made my early living punishing men. Of course, they liked it. Do you think you will?"

"No- no, please- I'm sorry, please-"

"You're just sorry you got caught at it," she snapped, and brandished something at him. "You know what this is, Mr. Knows Everything?"

For a moment he didn't, and then he recognized it. It was a whip. A Ferengi neurowhip, turned off at the moment. His heart almost stopped. "Oh no, no please, you don't have to do this, I'm sorry, I won't do it again-"

"You're right. You won't."

"The Continuum wouldn't let me give any mortals information like that!" He tried to follow her with his eyes and head, since he couldn't really move his body at all. "I was afraid they'd destroy me if I really gave you transwarp. It could destabilize the whole quadrant. Please, I'm sorry!"

"Don't bargain with latinum you don't have. If you weren't allowed to give me the information, then you shouldn't have agreed to do it."

He saw her hand raise, saw the neurowhip come to terrifying life, humming and crackling with light. "NO!"

The blow knocked the wind from him. For a split second he was suspended, as if trapped between moments of time, waiting for the pain. The welt flared awake across his back then, a single burning line. And then it radiated from there across his entire back, like the acid solution had been on his throat, like she'd set him on fire. He screamed, and couldn't stop.

"One for disobeying me and breaking our deal. And one for lying to me."

"No no no please-"

When the second lash struck, he started retching. With his body pinned to the desk, he couldn't keep his head up and out of it; he threw up onto the table everything in his guts, which fortunately mostly consisted of coffee but was still vile, and then fell into it, his cheek laying in his own vomit. He began to sob.

"There, now." She patted his head. He registered that as an additional dull humiliation, not that it mattered when she'd broken him so far already. "You'll be a good boy now, won't you? No more lies, no more deal-breaking. You'll help me develop a working transwarp drive, and there won't be any more of this."

Q nodded frantically. "Yes, yes, I promise," he choked out between sobs. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I promise..."

"You know, you got yourself into this whole situation because you underestimated me. Mocking me, insulting my intellect, trying to destroy my reputation... you thought I was enough of an idiot that you could lie and I wouldn't catch it. Isn't that right?"

"I'm sorry, please, I'm sorry..."

"Oh, you're sorry. But you're not sorry that you dismiss people, decide they're too stupid to talk to you, despise them and try to destroy them professionally. I think you need to be. I think you need just a little more discipline."

He realized that "discipline" was a euphemism for the torture she'd inflicted on him, and started to panic. "Oh no no please I'm sorry I won't do it again I promise you don't NO NO-"

This time the lash struck through his clothes, against his buttocks, but the pain was so awful he might as well have been naked for it. For moments the world went gray, and tunneled, and he thought he was about to faint, but even that tiny mercy was denied him - the pain followed him as the world started to dim, and then reality came back and the pain was still there, perhaps even stronger. He couldn't hear anything but the blood rushing in his ears and his own screams. The clamps went away, and he fell into a pile on the floor, sliding off the desk, unable to make his muscles work to support him at all. Wet cloth was pressing against the skin of his legs. With distant horror Q realized he'd lost control of his bladder on the third lash. It was impossible to sink lower than this. He cried hysterically, repeating over and over "Forgive me... forgive me..." Yalit said something snide about his begging her for forgiveness, but it wasn't her he was talking to anymore. It was the Continuum.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I can't go up against this much pain. I know you don't understand. I didn't understand pain when I was one of you, either. But I'd rather die than let her do this to me again. I know that if I give her what she asks for, it'll destabilize the quadrant and violate our laws, and you'll probably condemn me for it. But if I don't, she'll do this again and I can't, I can't bear it, I can't, please, please forgive me. I'm only human. You made me that way. Please, please, understand, I can't resist her now. Give me a way to escape this, or kill me, or something, but please, I wanted to do the right thing but I can't, please understand...

A kick in the ribs got his attention. "All right, that's enough," she said. "Get up and get back to work."

After this? With his entire back still on fire, she expected him to be able to work? "I can't..."

"You want the whip again?"

"NO! No, please!"

"Then get up."

He tried. He tried desperately, terrified of what she would do if he failed. But his back muscles simply wouldn't work. He couldn't get up off the floor. He tried using his arms to pull himself to his feet using the desk but his hands wouldn't hold his weight, he was shaking and he couldn't clamp them tightly enough. Q moaned in terror, knowing what Yalit had threatened, but no matter how hard he tried he simply couldn't get up.

Yalit laughed, and gestured at the two men still behind him. They reached down, each grabbed an arm, and hauled Q to his feet. Once he was there he was extremely wobbly, but able to support himself by leaning on the desk. He managed, barely, to stop crying.

"Time to get back to work," she said. "And this time no lies."

His face and chest were covered with vomit, his pants wet. "Can I get changed?" he asked, but it came out as a hoarse whisper. "Please?"

"No. You can stay like that all day - it'll remind you of the consequences of disobeying me. Now." She lifted a PADD. "You're going to explain these equations again and you're going to fix them."

He couldn't concentrate. There was no way he could explain advanced physics right now in terms mortals could understand. He hurt far too much. But if he didn't, she would whip him again.

Grimly, Q took a deep breath - through his mouth, trying hard not to smell himself - and mustered up the tattered remains of his dignity. He had to do this. There was no choice.

"To begin with, the coefficient of j isn't 2.71 times ten to the sixteenth, it's 3.98 times ten to the fifteenth..."

The door swished open at around the same time Q had returned yesterday. T'Laren looked up from the couch, and was on her feet immediately. Something was very wrong. Q's eyes were puffy and red, his shirt was stained, he was moving very stiffly, and he smelled awful. "Q! What's wrong?"

"None of your business," Q snapped. His voice was hoarse. "I want a shower."

He stalked into the bathroom. The door swooshed shut behind him and clicked as it locked. T'Laren followed him to the door. "Are you all right?"

"Fine! Peachy! Never better!" She could hear an awful strain in his voice.

"Q, stop being difficult and tell me what's wrong!"

"Nothing's wrong! I'm fiiiingaah!" The last was a strangled cry of pain, cutting off his words and proving, if she had actually needed proof, that he was in fact hurt.

"I can tell you're hurt, Q."

"Very good, Sherlock! Take you all that Vulcan logic to figure that out?" Another strangled moan.

"Let me help you! I might be able to do something for you. I do have some medical training."

He laughed unpleasantly. "A backrub isn't going to do much for this, T'Laren. Now go away. I need a shower."

"All right, but tell me if there's anything I can do."

The sound of the shower came on before she was even done with her sentence, and she heard him scream. It was a choked-off scream – he was still trying to hide how much he obviously hurt – but a scream nonetheless. He wouldn't let her help, and there was nothing she could do until he unlocked the door, but at least she could listen. As the shower noise got louder, Q's whimpers grew more and more frequent, until finally he broke down and started openly crying. The sound haunted T'Laren. She wanted desperately to go to him, to do something to ease his pain, though off the top of her head she didn't know what yet. She couldn't walk back to the couch and sit down – she felt compelled to stand near the door, as close to him as she could come.

Eventually the shower stopped. "Get me a pair of boxers," Q demanded through the door, no longer crying but his voice still full of that terrible strain.

"You have boxers?"

"One or two pairs. Probably buried at the bottom of the underpants drawer. Or else in my luggage still. Although if I bothered to unpack the leopardskin loincloth I probably unpacked the boxers too."

It turned out that most of Q's underwear consisted of briefs, made of a thick, soft and breathable but unyielding material with hardly any give. T'Laren had never previously had any occasion to handle his underwear, so she hadn't observed this before, and she wasn't a man, so she had no personal knowledge in the matter, but she couldn't imagine that they could possibly be comfortable when wrapped around an organ that could randomly change size. Knowing Q as she did, she suspected the briefs were designed to hide any suggestion of a human weakness like an erection. The boxers, which turned out to be in the bottom of the drawer as he'd said, were opaque in color but so light and silky they seemed hardly solid. She wondered what had inspired him to acquire them. They seemed to indicate that at some point he'd had to have been more open to human sensuality, if not outright sexuality, than he was now.

She brought one over to the door. "When did you get these?" she asked.

The door opened, and Q, dressed in his bathrobe, grabbed the boxers out of her hand, then stepped back into the bathroom and let the door swoosh shut again. "If you've just been stabbed in the gut, it turns out briefs aren't comfortable in the slightest," he said through the door. For a horrified moment she thought that he meant he'd just been stabbed, and then she realized he was probably referring to the incident with the Maierlen assassin, and that he was answering her question. That was a pity, if it was the truth. It would be so much more pleasant if he had gotten them to enjoy wearing them rather than to minimize pain from an injury.

Q left the bathroom again, still walking very stiffly. The bathrobe was the color of royal robes in European human tradition, and it was plush velour and very long, so with his stiff small steps and the robe trailing on the floor he looked like a displeased emperor.

"Can you tell me what's wrong now? I want to help you."

"Can you break my neck for me? Because that's about the only help I can imagine anyone but a Federation doctor doing for me right now, and maybe not even one of them." Rather than going to the couch he headed directly for the bedroom. "Li would probably say I'm overreacting. Of course I could have my leg cut off with a blunt chainsaw in front of Li and he'd probably say I was overreacting."

"Are you tired enough to go to bed without dinner?"

"I have no interest in dinner, but I'm not going to bed. I just can't sit down, and I'm not going to stand up all day."

"What happened?"

They went into the bedroom. Very gingerly, Q climbed on the bed and laid down on his stomach. "As entertaining as it might be to completely destabilize the politics of the Alpha Quadrant with a piece of technology that shouldn't even be here, I decided the Q Continuum might look at me askance if I actually gave Yalit transwarp. Unfortunately she was smarter than I gave her credit for."

He hadn't been injured in an accident. Yalit had done this to him, whatever it was. T'Laren was possessed of a sudden desire to run Yalit through with a carving knife, lift it into the air and drive it into the wall, letting the small Ferengi hang from it as she bled to death. Control. There was no point to letting rage run away with her, even if she was having a hard time actually controlling her emotions right now. "What did she do to you?"

"Hit me with a neurowhip. Three times." He was obviously trying to sound casual about it, but it wasn't working. A slight crack in his voice at the end gave him away. Not that he didn't have reason.


He turned his head toward her. "When? What difference does that make?"

"A neurowhip is extremely painful but it's only supposed to last a few minutes. It's a slaver's weapon. If you're still hurt…"

"It was early afternoon. Are you sure they're only supposed to last a few minutes? That was something like four or five hours ago."

"Let me see."

"You are aware I'm not wearing anything but this bathrobe and the boxers you got me."

"If I had a prurient interest in your body this would hardly be an appropriate time to express it in any case. May I see?"

He got to his knees, very slowly, and carefully shrugged the bathrobe off his left arm and shoulder, then laid back down again with it lying mostly on his back. "Be my guest," he said through gritted teeth.

T'Laren sat on the bed and reached to the bathrobe, intending to lift it up enough that she could see his injuries. As her fingers brushed Q's back lightly while starting to lift the bathrobe, he screamed, his whole body stiffening. Startled, she dropped the bathrobe.

"Be careful! You have to grab that thing right where she hit me?"

"I didn't," T'Laren said, staring at his back. When she'd dropped the bathrobe it had exposed just enough of that spot on his back that she could clearly see the skin smooth, unbroken and unreddened. "Let me try this again."

Using great caution, she pulled the bathrobe up without letting it or any part of her body touch Q's back. There were two slender welts across his back, one just below his shoulderblades and one lower, near the middle of his back. The skin was broken on the second one, but if it had bled at all, Q's shower would have washed the evidence away. And T'Laren could confirm that she hadn't touched him anywhere near either welt.

She reached out and very gently touched his shoulder. "Does that hurt?"

"No, but it must be the only place that doesn't."

"Tell me when you start to feel any pain or discomfort."

"What are you going to do?" He almost started to roll to his side, then apparently thought better of it.

"I'm going to run a finger along your back, as gently as I can, to find the point where the sensitization starts."

"Did you maybe try looking at where she hit me?"

"Yes. The injuries are very minor."

Q turned his head and glared at her. "Oh, I see. I'm just moaning about nothing again, right? There's absolutely nothing wrong with me and I'm just being a giant hypochondriac because I feel like she dumped acid all over my back but the injuries are only minor."

T'Laren was startled by his vitriol, although given what he'd put up with on the starbase, she realized belatedly that her choice of words was very poor. "No, no, that's not what I mean at all. Q, this was a neurowhip. A neurostimulation weapon. Races that are still barbaric enough to use torture, but advanced enough to travel in space, almost always use neurostimulation, and it's not because it's more humane. The physical damage it causes is small or nonexistent, but the pain is excruciating."

"Oh, believe me, you don't need to tell me that."

"I know. I'm validating you. The point to a neurostimulation weapon is to hurt, a great deal, without risking the life or health of the victim. And a neurowhip is supposed to be a fairly mild neurostimulator, and it shouldn't have left welts over this length of time, or broken the skin. Does this hurt?" She touched a spot between his shoulderblades, several centimeters away from the actual welt, very gently. He cried out.

"Yes, that hurts! I told you to be careful!"

"That was not even close to the welt. This is what I was afraid of."

"Afraid of? And what do you mean not even close?"

"I mean that you're continuing to experience considerable pain in parts of your body that suffered no physical damage whatsoever and are several centimeters away from where she hit you. That's not standard for a neurowhip. She had it turned up to maximum and she hit you as hard as she possibly could." Stick Yalit to the bulkhead with a carving knife and then use a cheese grater to peel off the skin on her face. After fastening her tongue to her chin with a protoplaser. "Q... you mustn't be ashamed of anything you said or did after this attack. She tortured you. The good news is that because the physical damage is slight – most of the pain is being caused by the nerves being oversensitized – you will probably feel no more than a mild ache by tomorrow. But unfortunately your value to them won't be compromised if she uses it again. You have to be very careful."

His breathing had grown ragged. "She wants transwarp."

"Give it to her. A neurowhip is a slaver's weapon – it's simply supposed to deliver a brief burst of pain, to keep a slave working without impairing their ability to work. If Yalit is willing to actually hit you this hard with it… there's no telling what she might do to you." She squeezed his hand.

"The Continuum won't want me to."

"They'll have to understand. No human can resist this level of pain indefinitely. I have seen Starfleet officers sign false confessions under less duress than this."

"They don't have to understand anything. They don't know that pain hurts. Which is to say, they know, they just don't care. I know, I was one of them. They won't forgive it if I break. Which I've already done. So not only am I the captive of a torturer who plans to sell me into slavery, but now the Continuum will never take me home again. So could you please break my neck? Or something, I heard there's a Vulcan death grip."

"I'm not going to break your neck."

"I could tie a shirt around my neck and strangle myself with it, but if you didn't stop me the Ferengi would." He sounded like he was brainstorming, trying to come up with a solution that would let him die and working it out aloud, rather than actually conversing with her.

"You don't know for certain that the Continuum won't forgive you. You thought they would kill you for trying to stop the Borg."

"The Borg needed a spanking anyway. This is different." He pulled his pillow over his head. "Probably a test anyway. Maybe Lhoviri put the transwarp drive on this thing just to see if I was enough of a coward to give it away to a materialistic little troll. With a whip. Are you sure you won't break my neck?" The pillow muffled his words, but not enough that she couldn't understand him.

"No. Although perhaps there is something I can do." She examined the welt where the skin was broken. "This isn't bleeding enough that we need to be overly worried about infection, which is good because I don't believe the alcohol content of the grapes would be sufficient to sterilize the wound, but they should function as a painkiller."

"The grapes?"

"Yes. The ones Yalit had sent over yesterday, that you said were alcoholic?"

"Oh. Yeah. You saved them?"

"I ate a few more, but yes, I still have quite a few."

"I tried real alcohol a few times. It's overhyped in my opinion. Synthehol works just as well at numbing the pain of existence and doesn't result in one's head exploding the next morning. Or vomiting."

"I believe you're correct, but we don't have any synthehol."

"Well, then, give me some grapes. I have never in my existence needed to get drunk quite as badly as I do right now."

She got the bowl, sat down on the bed next to him and handed him three of them. As he ate them, wincing, she had a sudden ridiculous mental image. With Q lying on the bed with a royal purple bathrobe draped over part of his body, the fact that she was feeding him grapes made her suddenly see herself as a harem girl. It took far greater an effort than it should have to control the urge to giggle. Given how much Q was suffering, that would be beyond inappropriate. To drive out the unwanted image, she looked back at Q's injuries, at the drawn expression on his face. It worked, if the goal was solely to get rid of the undesired hilarity; she was overwhelmed instead with the urge to take him in her arms, to meld with him and draw his pain into herself, to touch him and soothe the pain away. That wasn't actually any more appropriate than the urge to laugh. What was wrong with her emotional state? Why couldn't she get control?

On the other hand, perhaps it was less inappropriate than she thought. Was there anything inherently wrong with the idea of helping him with his pain? "There is a possibility I could suggest," she said.

"A possibility you could suggest? That has to be the vaguest, most qualified sentence I have ever heard out of your mouth. What are you talking about?"

"A way to help you with your pain. If I were to meld with you—"


"—I could absorb the pain myself. My disciplines—"

"I said no!"

"Q, don't tense up, you'll hurt yourself."

"What part of no—"

"It was merely a suggestion."

"But you knew I'd say no, so why did you even get my hopes up?"

"I didn't. You told me once – I believe what you said was 'I'm phobic, not stupid.' If you had a good reason to accept a meld—"

"What, so I'm stupid for saying no?"

"You're in excruciating pain. I could help you. You know that a human's mind can't be absorbed or destroyed in a mindmeld the way you've described the Q consuming each other—"

"Tell that to tr'Sahlassiu."

"He was trying to steal knowledge and then kill you. I would be taking your pain away. I think there's a rather large difference."

"I said no."

"Then the answer is no. That's acceptable. I only wanted to help."

He said nothing for a minute or two, long enough that she thought he might have dropped the subject. "I just… if the thing with tr'Sahlassiu hadn't happened… maybe. But not now. I… can't. Not even for this."

She stroked his hair, running her fingers through it. The muscles of his scalp were horribly tense. She started to reach toward his temples to rub them, found herself opening her telepathy as if preparing for a link, and pulled her hand back. He'd said no. He really had been traumatized by the incident with the Romulan, as much as he'd successfully pretended otherwise. She understood that. Why was she almost on automatic pilot, then? Why was the impulse to meld with him so powerful she had for a moment almost forgotten he'd said no?

"T'Laren?" There was an odd note in Q's voice. Not the strain his injury had placed in it, something else. His notes were more clipped than usual, his voice more rigid. Had he realized what she had almost unconsciously done?

"Yes?" she asked, controlling her own voice.

"Remember our discussion about grated aspirin?"

She blinked. It was hard to think clearly. "What?"

"I've had real alcohol before. It doesn't taste like this. Whatever they were putting in your food, they put it in these grapes too." He took a deep breath. "I couldn't tell at first; between the alcohol and enough sugar to kill a diabetic instantly, I needed to eat a few before I could tell for sure. But it's definitely the same taste."

They hadn't stopped poisoning her. The peace offering they'd given her had more of the drug, just masked. Abruptly everything made sense. T'Laren went ice cold. They wouldn't have given her a relatively harmless prank drug like dicydrenaline, and then told her what it was, and then kept giving it to her. She could just fast, after all. They needed to trick her into taking enough of something to trigger a reaction that wouldn't stop. Something where by the time she realized they were still drugging her, there would be enough of it in her system that the reaction would be irreversible.

They'd been giving her farr t'gahn.

"I'm sorry," Q said, and his voice broke. "I thought—I thought I'd managed to make them leave you alone. But even when Yalit thought I was telling the truth about transwarp, she was still doing this. I never had the power to stop them at all, and I—I've got nothing to bargain with, I can't force them to stop. I tried. I'm s-sorry."

The last word came out on a full-fledged sob. He pressed his face into the pillows, obviously trying to get himself under control. Did he know? No, they'd told him dicydrenaline, and he had neither the psychopharmaceutical training nor the personal experience to know the difference. He thought she was essentially drunk because they were drugging her. He didn't know she was dead.

I might be able to stop it. It's caused by a drug, not a real cycle. Vulcans have survived when it was caused by an external influence before—a virus, mind control, perhaps even a drug. They might not have dosed me enough to make it irreversible. Perhaps with meditation, I can overcome it.

Or perhaps if I kill some of the Ferengi. Blood fever can be quenched by blood, sometimes. Isn't that what they say?

No, ridiculous. I'm not going to kill anyone. I'd hardly have the opportunity. I just have to overcome this with discipline. That's all. Others have.

Others who were far more disciplined to begin with than she was.

But she had to defeat it somehow. If her cycle had been triggered, the only person who could satisfy her need would be Q. And if he wasn't willing to meld with her to eliminate the pain of being tortured, he certainly wouldn't be willing to do it to fulfill her sexual need. Given that the alternative, if she couldn't control it, was her death, he might offer himself—Q had been willing to sacrifice his life to save people who meant less to him than she apparently did. He might well consider giving himself up to be raped an acceptable sacrifice to save her life… but it would be rape, regardless. Even aside from his sexual hang-ups, he was terrified of intimate mental contact. He'd already been mentally violated, by a Vulcanoid telepath no less. She couldn't do that to him. She would rather die.

But it wouldn't come to that. Because she was going to get it under control. Somehow.

"It's all right," she said, and was proud of how calm her voice was. "It's not your fault. Do what you must; don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

You are so stupid. The voice in his head mocked him, as if, not having the Continuum around to tell him what a loser he was, he had to create a model of them in his head to do it for them. She says she could take the pain away. She wants to do it. And here you are trembling in terror because some Romulan telepath tried to assassinate you. What an idiot.

He almost opened his mouth to tell T'Laren he'd changed his mind, he wanted her to help him, if only to make the mocking voice go away. It was one thing to deal with that little voice when he was alone, or when no one he cared about was in his environs, which had been most of the time before he'd met T'Laren. It was something else entirely to feel as if someone whose opinion actually mattered might be agreeing with his own self-mockery. He already knew that there was an element of his own mind that thought he was an idiot, a pathetic excuse for a Q and an even more pathetic excuse for a human being, but believing that someone he cared about might think so too was almost unbearable. And then, of course, there was the fact that the pain was so horrible he would do almost anything to make it go away.

Almost anything. When he started to speak, he remembered tr'Sahlassiu's attack, remembered the feeling of an alien mind inside his own, and his complete inability to keep the invader out. And yes, T'Laren was right – a Vulcanoid telepath couldn't absorb a human mind and devour it the way the Q could do to one another. But that had never been the point.

"You must think I'm an idiot." He said it almost without thinking, and was embarrassed to hear it come out of his mouth – it was such a naked plea for validation, it would have completely humiliated him to have said it if he hadn't been so badly humiliated already today. As it was, though… it was embarrassing, but he really did need her to know he had good reasons for what he had chosen. And that he hadn't meant to screw up nearly this badly, and how sorry he was for what was happening to her, but mainly he needed to know that she didn't think he was a total moron.

"Why would I think such a thing?"

"I know… what you're offering… I know it's the only real way to stop this pain that we've got. I'm not stupid. I just…"

"I understand, Q. You don't need to explain yourself."

"But I do. Because you don't understand. So you probably think I'm an idiot."

She sighed. She was actually very emotional lately; Q would be surprised, except that they were prisoners and he was pretty sure the stress of the situation would get to a normal Vulcan, let alone one who was self-admittedly bad at maintaining her control. "I don't think less of you for refusing my offer. You explained your feelings regarding mindmelds a month ago. I hadn't forgotten."

"You quoted my own words back at me like you thought I was an idiot for turning you down."

"You've been attacked telepathically since you said those words."

"Yes. That." He took a deep breath. "Do you know what he wanted to do to me?"

"My understanding was that he planned to kill you."

"Because he couldn't actually do what he really wanted. I fought back."

"Oh. Yes. He told me he wanted information on how to break you. He thought I would know your emotional weaknesses, and that he could use my knowledge to make you submissive, so he wouldn't have to kill you. When I refused he said he would need to kill you if he couldn't break you, and I told him I was sure you'd rather die."

"You were right."

Her hand ran through his hair. "I would never do such a thing to you, Q. If you consented to a mindmeld, I would never violate your trust in such a way."

"Yeah, I know that. I don't… If I trusted anyone it'd be you, T'Laren."

"But you don't trust anyone."

"About fifty thousand years ago or something, I really have a hard time keeping track of how long ago things happened in mortal time when I was a Q, when I was still basically a kid, five older Q jumped me and tried to rewrite my personality by force."

The hand in his hair went still. "The Q do such things to one another?... But you've already said children devour each other, so I suppose that would be no different…"

"Wrong, actually. Children devour each other, but when you're almost an adult, you know better. Because when one Q absorbs another, what survives is the strongest traits. The strongest ego is the one that comes out on top, and I have a stronger ego than most other Q." For a moment he grinned, before the pain made the fleeting moment of amusement impossible to hold onto. "No one wanted to eat me, and I didn't want to absorb anyone else, because we all knew I'd win but I didn't want to change. I didn't want to absorb any part of anyone else. The Q let kids do that to each other because it weeds out weaknesses… mostly. What survives is always stronger than the individual parts were. Rewriting someone's personality… is different." He lifted his head to look at her, although that hurt, too. "It's sort of like raping someone, murdering them, mutilating the corpse and raising it as an undead zombie, who you then try to pass off as your roommate Fred. It's one of the worst things we can do to one another, and it's considered an extremely serious crime. But, well… I was winning friends and influencing people even back then, and these guys hated me enough that they thought that if they just went ahead and did it, it would be a fait accompli, and so many people would be grateful to them for making me less of an asshole that they'd be given a slap on the wrist."

"I take it it didn't work?"

"It would have worked." He let his head down onto the pillow again, staring at the wall. "They had my defenses down – I was tough, I could have fought off any other one Q, maybe even two. Against five I didn't have a chance. They lured me into a pocket dimension that wasn't a direct part of the Continuum proper, and then they opened me up, blocked me off so I couldn't call for help and started doing major surgery on my mind." He took a deep breath. "There's a Q who used to like to follow me around to keep me out of trouble – my older sister, kind of. She was one of the caretaker Q and I was always getting in trouble so she was always taking care of me. Usually that meant making me clean up my messes and giving me a lecture, but on a few rare occasions she actually had to save me from some sort of danger. So she found me before they could actually finalize their changes – it's not like actual surgery or the way humans manipulate things in the real world, you plot out every step of what you do and then when you have the plan in your mind you just do it, like you throw a switch and the thing that's in your mind becomes real, and since they were plotting a change on me using Q powers and I was as Q as they were, I could see everything they wanted to do, every plan they were making. I could feel it like it was real, although it wasn't yet."

"She stopped them?"

"She called in the rest of the Continuum. Maybe if they had managed a fait accompli they would have gotten a slap on the wrist, but since they didn't actually succeed and I was still the same brat I always had been, they were stripped of their powers and thrown out of the Continuum."

"Were they considered children too, or were they adults?"

"The line was really blurry at that point. Probably not as adult as I am right now, but definitely older than I was then. But we'd have done the same to actual children. There are things the Q don't tolerate doing to one another. Otherwise they'd have rewritten my mind and I'd still be with them, except I wouldn't be me anymore."

"You told me that you feared mindmelds because the Q all fear mental intimacy, because you can be absorbed into each other."

"Oh, we do, and we can, and I did think that was the main reason. That, and when other Q can read behind your shields they generally go out of their way to mock you for it, so the idea that other people can read my mind and I can't read theirs is something I have about a million years of being humiliated with, so it's not like I'm ever going to be happy about it." He tried to shrug, but it hurt, so he aborted the movement. "This thing was fifty thousand years ago. It wasn't exactly at the top of my mind; I never thought about it. I barely even remembered it until tr'Sahlassiu tried to do the exact same damn thing."

"I'm sorry," she said. Her voice sounded oddly hoarse, almost as if she was about to cry. He looked back up at her again, but her face was as still and calm as it always was. He was hearing things, reading too much into it. She wasn't that bad at emotional control… well, except that the Ferengi had been drugging her, but the idea that she might cry over something that had happened to him fifty thousand years ago was ridiculous.

"It's not – I'm not – you know, I haven't been going around moaning about how traumatized I am because someone tried to make me someone else, when I was younger. It's just… I fought back this time. He was only going to kill me, because he couldn't get my defenses down far enough that he could rewrite me. I would have died cleanly… because you're right, being changed like that is a fate worse than death. So, you know, I shouldn't be so upset about it. But… I didn't trust them. They used brute force. And I didn't trust him, so he couldn't do it."

"Are you trying to say that you trust me too much to trust me? I find that paradoxic even for you."

It would have hurt to laugh, so he grinned instead. "Oh, I can get far more paradoxic than that. Believe me. But… yes. If I did let you in… I know you wouldn't try to turn me into someone else, but, you know, you've spent the entire time we've known each other trying to turn me into less of an asshole, and you once threatened to throw me out an airlock because you thought it would teach me a lesson, and that's what the Q do… and I'd never voluntarily let one of them in that deeply either, not so deep I couldn't throw them back out again, and you're more powerful than me. In terms of telepathy. I couldn't stop you. I'm not even sure I'd know you were doing it."

"I see."

"I don't… I'm not trying to insult you. I don't think you'd ever deliberately hurt me, but… you want me to change my behavior so I'll be a better person, or happier, or whatever. Most of our entire relationship is built on that. And even though I fired you, I don't know. If you had the opportunity to just make a little tweak here or there, would you take it?"

"It would be very, very difficult. As you say, your ego is very strong. And our relative power levels mean little in a mindmeld; I could start it, and I doubt you could break it against my will, but your ego could probably override mine more easily than the other way around." She pulled her hand away. "But I will not violate your trust. If you don't wish me to meld with you to try to help you with the pain… I'm not offended. It's better this way. Because Caesar's wife must be above reproach. If there's even the chance that you would believe I had mentally raped you, I would rather not expose either of us to that. I would much rather…" Her voice did break then. "I would much rather keep your trust, and your friendship, than to solve any fleeting medical problem in a way that ruins what bond we do have."

Q sat up into a kneeling position on the bed, gasping at the sudden agony in his back. "T'Laren? Are you all right?" There were tears in her eyes. Oh, if he ever did get his powers back, the entire Continuum would be unable to prevent him from de-evolving Yalit and her goons into lizards. Or fruit flies.

"It's the drugs," she said. "My control – my control-" She took a deep breath. He could see her forcing her emotions down, shoving them in a box. The process took longer and was more visible than he'd ever seen it on her. Or any other Vulcan.

"Is there something you need? A drink of water?" A trick he had learned fairly early in his sentence to humanity – when one was on the verge of tears, drinking something, anything, could keep your breathing regulated, stop the sobs before they started.

"No." She breathed deeply again. "I am in control. For the moment."

"Okay, good." He didn't want to lay back down. He was exhausted, but sitting up had been excruciating, and laying down the first time had been as well, and he didn't want to deal with the pain just yet. It was easier to deal with the exhaustion. Q carefully got off the bed and stood up, taking care not to let any pressure land on the back of his legs. "You said this will feel better in the morning?"

"It should. The reason for the pain is neural overstimulation – the same reason why, if you look at a bright light too long, you see blobs of light in your vision when you look away. Eventually the nerves will calm down and the pain will recede."

"Then I'm going to eat all your grapes and hopefully get drunk enough to pass out. Since you shouldn't be eating them, with the drug in them." A thought occurred to him. "That dicydrenaline stuff is safe for humans, though, right?"

"I doubt the drug in the grapes will affect you in any way."

"Good." He grabbed a handful of the remaining grapes and stuffed them into his mouth. The bitter aftertaste was tolerable if he kept putting new grapes, with their overpowering sweetness, into his mouth and biting them open before the bitterness of the last grapes had a chance to settle in. He didn't much like the taste of real alcohol in the first place, and the sweetness would have been cloyingly overpowering if not for the terrible bitter taste of the drug and the somewhat less bitter taste of the liquor, but it was medicine, so he took it.

T'Laren brought him a glass of water. "If your goal is to consume enough alcohol that it will dull the pain or help you sleep, you should make sure to drink plenty of water. This is real alcohol, not synthehol. You'll have a hangover in the morning if you don't stay hydrated."

"I've tried real alcohol before. I'm aware of the issue of hangovers."

The alcohol burned the back of his throat, making the bad taste less and less of an issue. He was actually starting to feel a little woozy. Good. With the pain he felt right now, total unconsciousness would have been ideal; if a bit of wooziness was the best he could get, he was all for it.

"When they bring dinner, should I let you know?"

"No." The pain nauseated him, the alcohol numbed his throat, the stress killed his appetite – there was no way he was eating anything tonight. "I have no intention of diluting any medicinal effect I might be able to get out of these things by filling my stomach with food instead. You can have mine, whatever it is. Just pick the meat out of it."

"I find I'm not particularly hungry either."

"Yeah, but you should be diluting your drugs, and if you store up water like chipmunks store nuts in their cheeks, the only way you're going to do it is by eating more food."

"It no longer matters. Now that I understand what's happening, I don't think diluting the drug will have much effect one way or another."

"Do what you want, then. I'm not your dad." The role reversal in him telling T'Laren she should eat made him chortle, which made him remember how much pain his back was in, which made him stop laughing after he'd barely started. Well, at least he wouldn't be a giggly drunk. He'd eaten almost nothing today – breakfast however many hours ago, and the grapes now, and that was it – so the alcohol was hitting him hard and fast. Good. If he threw up at least it would be dry heaves. And if his goal was to quickly achieve unconsciousness, he thought he might actually get there before he ran out of grapes. He was feeling distinctly dizzy now, and his body felt sluggish, unresponsive. "I'm planning to pass out shortly. If I throw up while I'm asleep, and it looks like I might choke to death on my own vomit, let me."

"It doesn't matter how many times you ask me, Q. I'm not going to kill you, or let you die." She took his hand. "I promised you I wouldn't let harm come to you, when I took you off the starbase. I may not be able to prevent Yalit from hurting you, but I won't do you harm myself, or let you come to any harm I can prevent." In a feat of unconscious irony, she was squeezing his hand hard enough that it hurt.

"Then watch the hand, Superwoman. I'm a fragile human, remember?"

She let go instantly. "I – I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

"—To hurt me, yes, I know. I got that. I know you've got yourself barely under control and it's not your fault but can you watch the getting physical? You don't seem to know your own strength anymore." His speech sounded slurred to him. That was actually funny. He seemed to recall from the brief time he'd spent frequenting bars on the starbase before he'd gotten beaten up in one that drunk people frequently felt the need to point out that they were drunk, and he'd always wondered why they did that. Perhaps it was because, being drunk, they didn't realize how incredibly obvious it was from their speech. Of course, he was much, much smarter than the average drunk human, so he could clearly tell that other people would be able to hear the alcohol in his speech, which meant that he was of course not going to mention it, because it was obvious. He started to laugh again. This time the pain in his back was a lot less.

"Are you all right?" T'Laren asked.

"Am I all right? I'm drunk." He laughed again. "You see, I knew I would say it. Even though I just said to myself, of course I'm not going to say it, because it's obvious, so it goes without saying. But it's something about the human brain chemistry. You can't prevent yourself from telling other people that you're drunk. Even though they know you're drunk, because your voice is slurred and you sound completely drunk. They should rename it the Stating the Obvious Drug. Although humans are pretty good at that even without getting drunk. For instance, why do human men insist on telling beautiful women that they're beautiful? Don't they already know? But maybe the men are drunk too. That sort of thing does seem to go on a lot in bars. And lounges. Which are not the same thing. You knew that, though, right? That they're not the same thing? So I'm stating the obvious again?"

"I'm going to let you sleep. Perhaps you should save the rest of those grapes."

"What, all two of them? What would I save them for? To get you drunk? Because didn't the Ferengi already do that?"

"There's actually eleven left, and I doubt they could get you drunk, but if Yalit uses a neurowhip on you again they're all we have to help you with. I don't think you need more tonight."

"Oh, but they're so tasty." He snickered. "That's a joke. They taste horrible. I know you like them, but that's because you're a Vulcan and you have no taste. Literally. Although actually to be literally I'd have to bite you or lick you or something and discover you don't taste like anything."

She shuddered slightly, her eyes widening. Q was surprised. "That was a joke, too, T'Laren. I'm not going to bite you. You're being ri… ricu… I can't believe I'm so drunk I forgot how to say ricudilous. Ridiculous. Right, that's it. See, it's rid… that thing I forgot how to say."

"I'm not afraid of you biting me, Q."

"You're a liar. And you're not a very good one. I saw you… tremble, or something. I know your emotional control isn't good but it's really ri… I keep saying that word and it doesn't work because I can't say that word. Ridiculous. Which sums up this whole situation. But anyway I was saying that it's ricu… ridiculous for you to be trembling because I joked about tasting you. I mean, I admit it was a bad joke, but I am drunk. Oh, hey, is that why they do it? Maybe they keep saying how they're drunk because they want people to forgive them for really bad jokes and the fact that they can't say ridiculous."

"I did not tremble. And if I had it wouldn't have been because I was afraid." She took a deep breath. "You'll be all right. I'm going to let you sleep now. Because I will not do anything to harm you."

And then she left, carrying the rest of the grapes. Q tried to sit up, annoyed that she'd suddenly abandoned him and planning to follow her out of the room, but firstly, the pain in his back, while much muted by the alcohol, was far from gone, and the sudden motion made it spring back to life like a wild animal leaping on him, and secondly, the entire room swayed wildly and he realized that if he felt dizzy and sluggish while lying down, sitting wasn't going to improve matters and standing or walking were probably out of the question. He took another sip of his water, since his mouth felt dry, and then laid back down, remembering at the last second not to flop because that would probably hurt a lot. Maybe he was drunk enough that if he closed his eyes he'd fall asleep.

Predictably, Q felt awful in the morning. His mouth was furry and his head was pounding. At least his back was significantly improved; the fiery awful pain everywhere from yesterday had dulled to three distinct lines of terrible soreness where the whip had actually hit him. He was more queasy than actually nauseous, and probably could eat breakfast if he forced himself to, but the idea wasn't very appealing.

What really made him feel horrible, though, was the memory of what had happened yesterday. He was beaten completely. If he didn't do every little thing Yalit wanted, she had demonstrated she had no qualms about torturing him, and the fact that he hadn't killed himself in response more or less called his bluff. What very little power he'd had in this situation was gone.

He wished desperately that he really did have the power to kill himself. Or that T'Laren had been willing to snap his neck for him. There were no fixtures on the ceiling he could use to hang himself, and the one time he'd experimented with strangling himself to death with his own clothes, he'd come to the conclusion that he simply couldn't do it; no matter how badly he wanted to die at the time, the sensation of choking to death would inevitably lead to him scrabbling to pull the tourniquet off his neck. He didn't have enough freedom of motion to space himself out the airlock, and he didn't have any weapons or poisons. There was no choice but to obey… and the worst of it was it was quite plausible that Yalit might decide to punish him for something intangible, like a bad attitude or being surly or sarcastic. He would actually have to be subservient, not just obey grudgingly. But if he went too far she'd probably decide he was being sarcastic and torture him. Or let her flunkies rape T'Laren to get to him; one could argue that he was obviously and unavoidably impaired in his work if he was tortured, but they could do anything they wanted to her without causing him a physical impairment. He couldn't face the kind of pain Yalit had proved herself willing to cause him for any reason, and he couldn't face the thought that T'Laren would suffer any more than she already had for what he had done.

"Are you sure you won't snap my neck?" he asked T'Laren as he left his bedroom. She was already awake, or possibly had never gone to sleep, and was practicing martial arts.

"Positive." She kicked the wall with sufficient speed and force to snap someone's neck, although from the angle it was more likely to be a Ferengi than him.

His escort arrived. "Human. It's time to go earn your keep," the Ferengi guard said.

"Hey, I don't get breakfast first?"

"You can eat grubworms on the job like the rest of us," the guard said, snickering. "Come on."

So they didn't intend to feed him decent food anymore now that they'd proven they didn't have to. Fine. Q had gone five days without food to make Eleanor take the monitors out of his room, after his second suicide attempt; he didn't have to eat the grubworms. He would just starve, and when he collapsed they would realize they needed to feed him something he could actually eat. "As long as there's coffee," he said.

"And what if there isn't?"

"Then I'll be significantly stupider and slower than usual. Not that you could tell the difference, but if your grandma wants my brain at peak performance, I need coffee. Beating me up won't help me think better."

"Fine. You can have coffee. And share our meal." The Ferengi snickered again.

Q looked over at T'Laren. She wasn't looking at him or the Ferengi; she was still exercising violently, her entire concentration on the imaginary foe she seemed to be fighting. "T'Laren? Are you going to be all right?" If they weren't feeding him, they probably weren't feeding her, either.

"Fine," she said shortly. Clearly she didn't want to talk to him.

She was within her rights – he had gotten them into this situation and couldn't get them out, and every bad thing that happened to her now was his fault. Still, it was very upsetting to him that she was ignoring him. The burden of despair and guilt and fear on him intensified. To all intents and purposes, he was alone in the worst situation he'd ever been in, in his human life. But then, he'd been alone for all the other bad situations, too. He was just going to have to deal with it.

Swallowing hard and looking away so he could pretend he didn't care, Q turned back to the Ferengi. "Fine. Let's go get that coffee and get to work." He wasn't going to able to pretend to be enthusiastic about this job, but if he pretended he was at least working as voluntarily as he had with Starfleet, maybe Yalit wouldn't complain about his attitude or something.

Control. Q was gone. The maddening delicious scent of male human still lay over absolutely everything in the room, but at least the source of it was gone. And the sight of him, and the sound of his voice. She could get her control back. Maybe.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. It had never been like this before. Before it had always been triggered by Soram, by his need, so there was never any holding back. Perhaps there was some frustration, some anticipation, before they could be alone together, because of course proper Vulcans wouldn't carry on in public even if they were dying, but they had served together in Starfleet – years ago Vulcans had pressured Starfleet, otherwise an organization openly hostile to families, into establishing that married Vulcan partners both serving in Starfleet could not be transferred to separate ships under any circumstances. She had never had to control the pon farr before; it had always been a wonderful excuse for letting go, for no longer having to maintain the rigid control that chafed at her so badly. The fact that theoretically it could be life-threatening if unfulfilled was hardly a consideration, because it would be fulfilled, no question.

She could die of this. It was quite possible. Vulcans rarely died anymore; interacting with so many other species had taken the edge off some of the stupider cultural traditions. Nowadays Vulcan men who went into pon farr without their wives were allowed by custom and culture to fulfill their need with a willing alien, a fellow Vulcan who was unmarried if they could find one, or a prostitute as long as the prostitute was not a slave or coerced into their work in any way. Vulcan women who were not choosers were allowed the same, and choosers as well, provided that they were certain that the substitute man was both willing and was their own free choice, so they didn't risk unleashing bloodlust against him. But in the past, when it was considered too shameful to talk about and all Vulcans of the right age were married and a Vulcan couldn't even admit to a non-Vulcan what the problem was, men had died, and sometimes women as well. It was usually less powerful, less deadly for a woman because it was triggered by her telepathic bond with her husband, and women who were weaker telepaths were less affected – or women who, whatever their level of power, had chosen to hold themselves aloof from their men. A woman who was a strong telepath, or a chooser who had made her choice, though – they could die of it, and they had.

And T'Laren's telepathy was irrelevant in this case. Farr t'gahn was a Romulan aphrodisiac, a sophisticated pharmaceutical that triggered the remnant Romulans had of pon farr. Vulcans weren't sure, but believed that Romulans had either practiced selective breeding or genetic manipulation to get rid of the weakness of pon farr, and probably only then discovered that it was tied to telepathy. The period the Romulans called pafaren was a time of heightened sexual arousal, and magnification of whatever tiny telepathic ability Romulans had, channeled into intimate relations. It occurred at random in both sexes and was considered a highly entertaining nuisance, rather like getting drunk would be if you could get drunk against your will off your own biochemistry.

Farr t'gahn had been created by the Romulans to trigger their own much milder Time, for pleasure, but since Vulcans and Romulans were still biologically almost identical, it could also be used to push Vulcans into pon farr. The Romulans had discovered at some point that administering it to male Vulcan captives made it possible to rape them, force them to breed against their will with Romulan women, who would then raise the half-Vulcan, telepathic children to join the Romulan secret police. Of course it had always been possible for Romulan men to rape Vulcan women, but the farr t'gahn was used to break the victims' will, making it less likely that they could use biocontrol to prevent pregnancy.

Melor had explained all of this to T'Laren after he'd discovered she was a spy, when he'd felt betrayed and enraged and had wanted to terrorize her with the knowledge of her fate. Perhaps if she'd simply thought she would be killed, she wouldn't have violated every ethical principle Vulcans had regarding telepathy to seduce Melor, force a mindlink on him, and save herself by rewriting his memories.

The drug essentially caused pon farr in any adult Vulcan, male or female. It didn't matter that she was a woman, and her telepathy was only relevant in that she would need to mindlink with any man she had sex with or it wouldn't satisfy her. Not that that would stop her. The utter humiliation of what she faced if she lost control burned through her. She would need sex, crave it from any man however repulsive, would be driven to beg for it or try to force men into it… and if the men who gave it to her were the Ferengi, it wouldn't work, and she would still die. Humiliated beyond measure, broken, begging, dignity shattered, and she would still die.

If it was Q, she would live. Because if she was broken by her need, she would force a mindlink on him. But he had made it very clear last night that, like Vulcans, he considered that rape, and she would rather die than harm him.

She had to get this under control. She had to. The restless energy burning through her hadn't let her sleep last night, and she'd lost interest in food, which was just as well as it didn't seem the Ferengi were interested in feeding her. The only thing that controlled the need even slightly was hard physical activity… but when she grew physically tired and couldn't keep doing calisthenics or katas or any other workout, the need was still there. Q's presence hadn't helped. All night she had wanted so badly to go to him, to kiss him and nibble on his cool human skin and open him up, sink herself into his mind and lose herself in him. Impale herself on him, pound and grind, use his body and mind, be inside him and around him and hold him inside her. He would have been horrified if he knew. He had never had sex as a mortal. There was no way she could do this to him, no way she could take him the way she wanted to take him. She'd almost lost it last night when he'd gotten drunk on the grapes and made a stupid pun about tasting her, and she'd imagined his tongue on her skin and came dangerously close to jumping him. She'd almost even rationalized it to herself – he was drunk, his inhibitions were lowered, she knew he was physically attracted to her, if she was ever going to get him to agree and not be traumatized by the whole thing wouldn't that have been the right time? But she knew better – getting someone drunk so they'd agree to sex with you when they wouldn't agree if sober was still rape.

The door opened. Four of the Ferengi entered the room. She looked over at them, felt a pulse of rage that they had done this to her, and turned away deliberately so they wouldn't see the fury in her eyes. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked, punching the air repeatedly, watching her form. Strike, strike, strike. That one was bad; if she'd actually hit someone with it she might have hurt her thumb.

"I think maybe there's something we can do for you," one of them said, giggling. He stroked his ears.

There was no logic, no reason to the rage that filled her. But she was still Vulcan. She could control it long enough. "Really? What is it you think you can do for me?"

They all laughed, a sound that grated horribly on her ears. One of them stepped forward. "I hear you might be having a little problem? A little frustration?" They all laughed again. "Something your human no-lobe eunuch can't do for you?"

"And what would that be?"

He came closer, one hand on his crotch. "Maybe a little bit of—"

She didn't let him finish the sentence. Her fist slammed into his neck. Ferengi faces were tougher, denser than most humanoid skulls, but their necks were as vulnerable as any other humanoid. Before he had even fallen she was moving, leaping past him. She grabbed the next closest one by his ears and swung him violently, using his own thrashing legs as weapons against the other two, and finished by yanking on the lobes hard enough to rip them. Then she flung him aside and went for the two she had hit with their fellow.

One had his phaser out. She hit his hand hard enough that the phaser went flying across the room, then punched him full force in the solar plexus with her other hand. The fourth man screamed and ran out the door.

"You want me? You want to fuck me?" T'Laren screamed after him. "You can fuck my fist up your ass, you sons of a diseased whore! Come on! You wanted fun, let's have—" She stomped brutally hard on the man she'd just dropped. "FUN!"

Her whole body tingled. She felt numb, sluggish, but still alive, still mobile and enraged. She spun around and almost fell over, dizzy and disassociated from her body, and saw the first man she'd attacked, the one she'd hit in the throat, holding a phaser on her. He was trembling and shaking. "Fuck it's on stun she's not stunned she's not stunned—"

"I tell you what," T'Laren said, almost conversationally. "You can try to reset that phaser to kill, and I can snap your fucking little monster neck before you can get it reset and fired. Or you can run for your life. Right now."

He ran. He ran, and the one whose lobes she'd torn ran, and the one whose ribs she'd just stomped on and broken rolled, moaned, and got to his feet and ran. It took all the control she had left to let them, not to follow them and tear their heads off.

And then they were gone, and she started to shake violently. No. She hadn't just tried to kill four men with her bare hands and no plan, she hadn't just taken a stun as if it were almost nothing. She hadn't just screamed obscenities at a fleeing man. This wasn't her, this wasn't who she was.

She was now, again, the woman who had murdered Soram.

She knew why she'd done that now. She knew what was wrong with her. She was a chooser.

T'Laren started to laugh hysterically, because she finally knew why her biological father had died. It all made sense. Why had a human man and his wife adopted a Vulcan child? Oh, T'Lal had been best friends with Roger and Helene Dorset. Oh, of course. And that explained why she hadn't let her own family, far-flung across starships as it was, take in her daughter? Why her dead husband's family hadn't been able to track the baby girl down until she was 16? T'Lal had murdered T'Laren's biological father in the throes of pon farr because she was a chooser, and she'd chosen Roger Dorset. Had T'Laren's adoptive mother Helene even known her husband had been cheating on her with her supposed friend? Had T'Lal known she would inevitably be driven to kill her husband when she agreed to marry him? Why did she let herself choose a human man if she was already bonded? Why had she let herself go through with an act that would result in an innocent man's death?

And what of T'Laren's own situation now? Who had she chosen? Would she kill Q if he did offer himself, the way she had just tried to kill the Ferengi? Did she need Soram, or Tris? Would she try to kill the wrong one if he approached her? But it didn't make sense, because she'd always been told choosers picked one man and would kill any other who had or tried to have sex with them during pon farr, so long as their chosen one was alive. Ordinary Vulcans during pon farr preferred their mate but would, if separated from a bondmate or especially if unbonded, willingly have sex with anything that moved, if it offered and sometimes if it didn't. The Ferengi had offered her sex and she'd wanted to kill them. Wanted to break every bone in their body, rip their lobes off all the way with her teeth, smash them and tear them and rip them asunder. Last night she'd wanted to jump on Q and fuck him senseless, not kill him or break his bones. Logically that made sense, because Q was as psi-sensitive as any human and Ferengi were psi-null, but everything she'd read said that logic had absolutely nothing to do with one's reactions during pon farr. She wanted Q. Still wanted him, badly – even more so now that she was part-stunned and shaking in reaction to her own violence and the inadequate phaser stun. Wanted to kiss him, touch him, feel him, wrap her fingers around his cock and feel it harden, watch his face when he lost himself in pleasure. Make him writhe and cry out, make him shove it into her and hammer her until she melted. She hadn't wanted the Ferengi, at all, and in fact had wanted to kill them for wanting her.

If she was a chooser, then she'd chosen Q. Which was horribly wrong, and stupid, illogical, every nonsensical thing ever. He was a former patient, and even if he'd fired her he was still very vulnerable to her. He was a virgin. He had enormous hang-ups about sex. He had even more enormous hang-ups, and outright phobias, of telepathic intrusion. He had been telepathically raped, by his own kind when he'd been supposed to be invulnerable and by tr'Sahlassiu recently. He was, despite brief moments of being wonderfully heroic in his own way, a self-centered asshole who would be a very poor choice for a boyfriend. He was the last person she should have chosen. Except that, as nearly as she could tell, she had chosen him, against all logic because pon farr didn't operate on logic, and now she was stuck. Even if they were rescued tomorrow she would still want him.

Was it possible for a chooser to want more than one man? She imagined Tris here, offering himself, and felt no urge to violence. She imagined Soram. No, him she still wanted to kill, again. Soram had betrayed her; Tris never had. She still loved him. He would be safe to turn to, if they were rescued tomorrow, which they probably wouldn't be because if Yamato had had the slightest inclination they were in trouble then Ketaya would never have been allowed to launch. But Tris wasn't here, and Q was, and oh how she wanted to please him, caress him, feel him inside and fuck him—

No. No. She was too far gone; she couldn't be thinking this way. She couldn't want this. She had to overcome it, had to get her self control back. Or lock herself away where she couldn't hurt Q. She would not rape him. She wasn't an animal, she was Vulcan. She would get control, or die.

Quite possibly die. But better that than to harm an innocent man who considered her his only friend in the universe.

Today working with the Ferengi was sheer torture. Not quite as literal a torture as he'd endured yesterday, but Q had already pushed that experience into the small black box he kept things like the attack by the Ceulan assassin or the beating from Starfleet. It wasn't that he had forgotten any of those things- if he had reason to, he could remember any of the various horrible things that had happened to him as a human in terrifying clarity- but he simply couldn't function on a daily basis if he couldn't push those memories out of his head most of the time. Being bored, humiliated and having to struggle to make himself understood to morons while not being permitted to treat them as the morons they were, however, was pretty much the story of his entire life on Starbase 56, which made it largely impossible to push those experiences into a black box. And this was the worst it had ever been. It was one thing not to be permitted to refuse to teach someone, but permitted to tell them in excruciating detail how stupid they were. It was another thing entirely to have to choke back every insulting thing he wanted to say, swallow his pride when they insulted him, and be forced to try to hide his frustration almost completely, out of fear of what they'd do to him if he did so much as roll his eyes at them.

When they decided to run a test, he told them the drive wasn't ready, that there was a good chance the crystals would blow. And they ignored him. And he didn't push. If he'd been back in the Federation, if it was still yesterday and Yalit hadn't beaten him with a neurowhip yet, he would have pushed it – would have pointed out what morons they were being, insulted their lineage and their level of evolution, and his voice would have dripped with contempt as he explained everything that was wrong with their ideas. But he didn't know how to argue for the truth without insulting people, and he was afraid. When the crystals blew, then they'd know he was telling the truth and maybe next time they'd listen to him.

So they fired up the transwarp drive, despite Q's advice, and for the first several minutes, it looked as if the test would be successful. Q knew better, but there was nothing he could do except brace for the inevitable stop. Yalit laughed at him. "Oh, we're so doomed. We can't possibly run a working test of the drive! Do you really even know anything, or are you actually completely overrated?"

He swallowed everything he wanted to say in response, and simply mumbled, "Maybe you'll get lucky."

Of course, ten minutes after the test began, the crystals blew and the power went out.

For several minutes there was nothing but chaos. Q stood to one side, arms folded, resentful that he had to be trapped here in the dark as the Ferengi scurried around madly, trying to get their power restored. They were using the lights on their hand scanners, which actually provided almost no light but it was better than total darkness, in a pathetic attempt to illuminate the room enough that they could accomplish something, or at least figure out that they couldn't accomplish anything. He wished there was a way he could contact T'Laren, but he couldn't, and she probably wouldn't try to take advantage of the power failure without him.

"We've shattered three crystals! We only had two replacements!"

"There's no emergency power! We don't even have life support!"

"The Profit Margin was pacing us until we hit transwarp, but at warp-equivalent 13 they're going to be half a day behind us. We can't expect any assistance!"

And then Yalit was in his personal space, holding the neurowhip coiled in her hand for light. At least he hoped it was on for light. He took an involuntary step back against the wall. "Do you think this is funny?" she snarled at him.

Where was she even getting that? He didn't think this was funny at all, just incredibly irritating. "No, of course not," he snapped, before he remembered that he was supposed to speak to her deferentially.

"I think you do! Lie to us, give us misinformation, and watch us stumbling around in the dark when the power blows out. You must be happy with what you've done. Maybe you need another lesson?" She brandished the whip at him.

All the blood rushed out of Q's face. "No!" he gasped, pressing back further against the wall. "I warned you about the crystals! I said they might blow, and you didn't listen to me! You can't blame me for your failure when I tried to warn you—"

"Oh, yes, mention casually 'that will probably blow the crystals', like you're talking about the rain! That was so very helpful. I remember what you did when you thought things wouldn't work at the conference. You barely opened your mouth this time!"

"Because I was afraid you'd hit me if I insisted you were wrong!"

"Well, now I'm going to hit you because you didn't make it clear what the problem was. Is that any better?"

There was nowhere to go. He was backed up all the way against the wall, and while Yalit was barely half his size, even if he shoved her and ran before she hit him, her goons would easily catch him – engineering was too crowded, too dark, and the doors wouldn't open. "Please, no! I – I can fix it. Let me help you get the power back on line!"

"How are you going to do that? We haven't got three spare crystals!"

"There's extra crystals in the locker under the main engineering console. I put some in there the night before we left Yamato, when we were prepping for departure and loading our bags, because I knew about the issue with the crystals blowing under transwarp."

"Boys!" Yalit shouted, and the panicked chatter going on all throughout the room instantly stopped. "Check under the main engineering console. Q here says there's extra dilithium crystals in a locker there." She looked up at him, the light from the neurowhip throwing eerie shadows across her face. "And you'd better be telling the truth, or I'll whip you until you'll lick my toes to make it stop."

That really wouldn't take very long, Q thought, terrified. He'd do anything, no matter how disgusting or humiliating, to keep her from starting, let alone to make her stop. It horrified him that he was this weak, but the box he'd put his memory of the pain from yesterday in had broken open and leaked all over his brain the moment she'd threatened him with the whip again, and he couldn't stop remembering how much it had hurt, how broken and humiliated he'd felt to be lying crumpled at her feet sobbing for mercy. His back ached with shadow pain, the memory of his agony translating into some degree of literal pain now. "I'm not lying," he said desperately. "Go ahead and check it!"

"Grandmother, I can't get it open! There's no power!"

"The emergency release for the locker is right under the lip of the console," Q said quickly, his words almost tripping on themselves.

"Okay, that's done it. Yes! Grandmother, there are ten crystals in here!"

"Ten?" She looked up at Q again. "What, did you steal them from Starfleet?"

"I requisitioned them!" Q snapped hotly. "I didn't need to steal them. My safety and security's important enough to the Federation that they just gave me ten dilithium crystals because I asked."

"Well, if they'd just give you something worth three or four bars of gold-pressed latinum because you asked, that bodes well for how much they'll pay to get you back safely." She nodded in satisfaction. "Keep our extra crystals! Hook up three of his ten; the Federation uses the highest grade dilithium, so his will probably last better than our discount crystals."

"But Grandmother, if we use the discount crystals plus one of his ten, we get to save the better crystals, and maybe we could sell them for a profit!"

"Don't be an idiot, Lurm. We make much more from transwarp than we do from dilithium crystals. Being able to run the tests successfully is more important."

The Ferengi installed the crystals, with much jostling each other in the dark and demanding light from each other. Then one of them – apparently Yalit's second in engineering, he had been one of the two who'd helped her torture Q yesterday – said, "There's a problem, Mother. The system's completely shut down. We'll have to do a cold start."

"So do an emergency intermix, Gon."

"We can't without computers. The calculations are so complicated we'd blow up the ship. But if we do it the normal way, a cold start could take a day, maybe more, and we won't have power until the engine's back on line."

"We'll survive for a day without life support. The air volume aboard this ship's enough that we could survive three days or more. There's only twenty of us aboard right now, plus Q and his Vulcan, and the ship's almost as big as Profit Margin." She shakes her head. "We'll be out of water faster than that, but in half a day Profit Margin should catch up with us, and they can beam all but a few guards for the prisoners and a skeleton crew for engineering out of here, and beam those that stay behind over some water and food. Maybe extra oxygen. So we'll live. Start the process." She took a deep breath, and then turned back to Q, her face suddenly distorting with rage. "But you! It's your fault we have to be stuck in the dark, without air circulation or warmth or even water, for half a day! I should beat you until you forget your name!"

"I can get the intermix formula right," Q babbled, almost hysterical with terror. "Please, please don't hurt me. If you leave me free to concentrate I can get you the formula for the emergency intermix and you can be back up in less than an hour. Please."

Her scowl grew even more fierce. "And how in the name of the River do you think you can do that without computer assistance?"

"It's math. The day I need computer assistance to do math is the day I jump out an airlock."

"There's no way a person can do that kind of math," Gon said. "There's something like twenty different calculations you need to do, in sequence."

"Actually, it's between seven and twenty-three," Q said, "and some of them iterate up to ten times before you have your final answer, and how many separate calculations you have to do depends on the results of the ones you've already done. So yes, I'm aware that most mortals can't manage this without computer assistance. But I've been doing math for millions of years. I can perform the calculations in my head."

"And if you're wrong the ship blows up," Yalit snapped.

"I won't be wrong."

Q's brain was optimized for doing math – an ability like a savant's, although without the deficits that would typically come with that. It wasn't a side effect of being a Q – he'd actually chosen this as his standard humanoid form in the first place because, among other things like his general aesthetic appreciation of the form, the man who'd had it first, a human physicist named Jason Hartfeil who'd died over a century ago, had that talent, and being able to offload much of the math involved in any use of his Q powers onto the mortal brain he was using rather than having to send all of it to the part of his self still within the Continuum had increased the speed with which he could make things happen – at least to his perceptions, although a human would never have noticed a difference of a tenth of a picosecond. When the Continuum had locked him into this body, he had not only acquired its annoying deficits like its bad back, but its positive traits as well, and that, fortunately, included the trait he'd acquired the body for.

The end result, aside from the fact that an elderly Vulcan physicist had once mistaken him for Hartfeil's grandson, was that Q didn't have to think to do math. His brain just did it for him, leaving his mind free to think about the implications of the results he was getting. Q wasn't up there with an actual computer, or, say, Data, but he was as adept with pure computation as a highly intelligent Vulcan who, unlike T'Laren, had actually been fully trained in the disciplines. He pointed that out. "I'm as capable of performing advanced computation in my head as a Vulcan. It won't go as fast as it would have with computer assistance – for this number of calculations, it'll take even me half an hour to an hour – but it'll be as accurate. You can run your emergency intermix in an hour. The air won't even have a chance to dry out."

Her scowl, which had been evening out as he spoke, returned full force. "How stupid do you think I am? I know what you're trying to do here!" She lifted the whip.

Q threw his hands out in front of his body, trying to block her from being able to hit his torso or groin. "I'm telling the truth! Please! The only thing I'm 'trying' to do here is keep you from hurting me! I don't have any other agenda, I promise!"

"Oh, so it didn't even occur to you that if you persuaded me to let you calculate the intermix formula, you could use it to blow us all up?" She grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him down, forcing him to bend down where she could get in his face. "You've threatened to kill yourself again and again, and we both know now it was a crock, after you begged your Vulcan friend to break your neck last night. You can't kill yourself with your mind. But if I let you calculate an intermix formula, you could kill us all, including yourself."

"If I did that T'Laren would die too."

"You're not even fucking her. I'm supposed to think you care so goddamn much about a woman you won't even screw that you'd pass up a chance to kill me and my family and yourself?"

Despite his fear, Q could not keep the look of utter disgust off his face. "Just because you come from a society where men consider you utterly worthless except as a receptacle for their genitals, doesn't mean all mortal men have the same nauseating attitudes. I don't need to be engaged in sordid copulatory practices with a woman to value her life."

Yalit released him, allowing Q to stand up straight again. "Oh, is that the way you are, then?" she sneered. "You're one of those that doesn't even like women, aren't you? Rather have some big strong fellow do you up the ass?"

Q blinked at the non sequitur, then scowled. "I am not human, if you'll recall. I haven't the slightest interest in any permutation of mortal sexuality; once you've enjoyed the sublime pleasure of joining energies, the idea of inserting tab A into slot B seems about as entertaining as cutting your toenails. But if I did have such an interest, I can't see why the gender of my partner would concern me; once you've made the decision to commit bestiality, does it really matter whether the animal you're copulating with is male or female?"

"Wait, so you think fucking another human – or your Vulcan pal, or anyone else – is bestiality? And you expect me to think that you care so much about the life of an animal that you'll sacrifice what you want to save its life?"

He sighed. "I don't think T'Laren is an animal." You, on the other hand, absolutely qualify. "But she's not my species. Not the way you humanoids aren't each other's species; she's not even my form of life. You could be great friends with a sentient tree and still not want to have sex with it. T'Laren is my friend. And you're absolutely right, if it were only me in this situation I would be willing to blow us all to bits in a heartbeat. But I won't do anything to harm T'Laren, or allow her to come to harm if it's in my power to stop. And you know this, because you've been using it against me since you took me captive, so why put on an elaborate show of ignorance?" It worried him, having to admit so baldly that T'Laren was his weakness, but if he didn't convince her to let him calculate the intermix formula, she would almost certainly take out her frustration at the lack of power on him sometime today before they got the engines back on, since apparently she'd rather blame him for her failure than her own idiocy. And it was true that Yalit and the Ferengi had been using T'Laren against him since their capture, so really, was he admitting anything they didn't already know?

She was quiet for a moment. "Let me see if I understand you correctly," she said finally. "You consider sex with mortal humanoids disgusting, equivalent to having sex with an animal. You have no desire for that Vulcan woman at all. But she's your only friend in the universe, since your nasty attitude has driven off anyone who wasn't paid to be your friend, so you'll do anything to keep her alive and healthy and unhurt. And that's why I'm supposed to trust that you won't blow us all up. Right?"

"I could quibble at individual details, but you have the big picture more or less correct," Q said.

And then Yalit smiled.

It was a "gotcha" smile, and Q cringed. In the unholy glow of the neurowhip, her huge, toothy grin was monstrous, terrifying, because it looked exactly as if she thought she'd just tricked him into saying something that betrayed himself, or something she could use against him. But she didn't hit him. "Fine," she said, still with the huge evil grin. "You make us an intermix formula. But you write down your steps – I'll give you a self-powered slate to write on – and I'll check your work. Don't forget I caught that you were lying to me yesterday. If you lie to me again, and I catch it, I'll tear strips off your back with this—" she waved the neurowhip in his face – "and I'll have my boys tie your friend down and fuck her till she bleeds, and I'll make you watch. And if you lie to me and I don't catch it, or if you screw up, you'll blow your dear friend to pieces."

Her grin got bigger. "I'll even give you an extra incentive. Succeed here, and I promise the Vulcan will go back to the Federation once I'm done selling you, maybe even before I'm done now that I know you can't really kill yourself. The Romulan Neutral Zone is too far away just to sell off a whore, and no one else would buy a Vulcan for that… and she's disrupting my boys' concentration. They don't normally have women aboard they can't fuck, aside from me. So I'll dump her at my first opportunity, drop her off on a Federation world and let her get on with her life." Yalit pulled his shirt again, dragging his face down to her level. "You understand? She'll live and go free, just as long as you don't do anything that kills her."

Q's first reaction was surprise, and disbelief – why would Yalit make him any promises of carrots, when they both knew she had him completely cowed by her stick? And then he realized why she was promising him T'Laren's freedom – T'Laren's continued life became much more valuable if she would go free back to the Federation than if she were sold to the Romulans as a breeding slave. By promising him T'Laren's freedom she gave him a much more powerful incentive not to blow them all up; he might have convinced himself that killing T'Laren in a quick clean explosion was a kinder fate to grant her than to let her be sold to the Romulans, but if the alternative was her freedom instead, it would be impossible for him to justify killing her. And with working transwarp, Yalit would probably feel that the risk of T'Laren successfully getting Federation law enforcement to capture Ketaya and rescue Q was extremely low, so she could afford to release T'Laren.

Which would leave Q completely alone, even more helpless than he was now, but he refused to think about that. He had promised to get T'Laren out of this situation, and if Yalit would promise her freedom to him for something he was going to do anyway so she wouldn't whip him… now he was committed. He couldn't change his mind and decide to blow them all up anyway. He had to do all he could to save T'Laren, which definitely included not killing her himself.

"All right. Give me the slate you want me to show my work on, and a light."

"We don't have any light."

"I can do the calculations in the dark, but I can't write them down without light. And you couldn't read them without light. So if you want to check my work, you're going to need to get me a light."

"Sed. Go to my office and get the slate off my desk. Frej, Pag, bring your scanner lights over here and leave them with Q. He's going to calculate our intermix formula so we can do an emergency cold start."

Since Q remembered what the matter and antimatter levels had been before the power blew, he could begin the calculations right away. When the slate arrived, he wrote down the matter and antimatter levels, the rating of the dilithium crystals, and the equation for balancing them all together, and then wrote down the answer. He then wrote down the next equation, describing the density of space-time in this area and the relative amount of energy that would thus be required to make a subspace bubble, plugged in the number from the last equation and wrote down the answer.

"You're not showing your work," Yalit snapped.

"I can't. I do the calculations in my head – I'm not carrying the three and shifting the decimal point the way you'd do it. I just know the answer. I'm writing down all the calculations and all the intermediate results I'm getting, but that is all the work I'm doing."

"And how do you expect me to follow that without a calculator?"

"I don't. That's why I'm doing this and not you, remember?"

"If I think you're deliberately fudging your answers…" she said menacingly.

Q took a deep breath. "You promised me T'Laren's freedom. I won't jeopardize that. About the only thing that could go wrong is if you keep waving that thing in my face and disrupting my concentration; I don't know about Ferengi, but one sure way to make even superintelligent human beings a whole lot stupider is to terrorize them and make them spend all their mental energy on trying to appease you instead of trying to solve your problem."

Yalit hissed at him, but backed off. With her no longer pressed up against him, looking over his shoulder, he was much better able to concentrate – the math only solved itself when his mind was relatively calm. He'd worked through horrific headaches, the fear of impending Borg invasion, two hours of sleep in thirty-six, and the belief that Security would kill him any minute now, but there were limits, and a neurowhip being waved in his face after he was just tortured with one yesterday went beyond them. Q worked steadily, although to the Ferengi it probably looked like several minutes of doing nothing followed by frantically writing numbers down; most of the work he was doing, including the iterations he had to perform on some of the calculations, was in his head.

For a moment before he wrote down the final numbers, he hesitated. According to T'Laren herself, she had been dead before Lhoviri had resurrected her to be his therapist. So if he was going to die, would it be such a great deal if she died at the same time? It really would be so much easier if he could just write the intermix formula down wrong, and die in a clean, instantaneous burst of energy, and it would be deeply satisfying to know he was taking his tormentors with him. Living with the terror of what Yalit might do, who she would sell him to, not to mention how willing she seemed to be to use the neurowhip on him, had been horrible so far. A quick death was much more appealing. Surely T'Laren would understand…

Except that she wouldn't. Because she'd never have a chance to. He had no time to ask her, to warn her or explain the situation; if she died now it would take her completely by surprise, and she'd have no idea why she was dying, or that it was his fault, and he couldn't do that to her. Not if the Ferengi really were going to let her go. She could go back to her life in Starfleet, or back to her boyfriend and sister-in-law on Yamato, and rebuild, her obligation to Lhoviri discharged unless he took it on himself to rescue Q personally and reunite them, and Q considered it rather more likely that Lhoviri would spontaneously make pigs fly on the bridge of Ketaya than directly intervene to save him. The thought of facing his captivity without her, of facing Yalit and the weapons she wielded against him, was awful… but if T'Laren was set free, then the Ferengi wouldn't be able to rape her or kill her or do anything to her. It would just be them and Q, no collateral damage, no innocent people to suffer for any mistakes he might make. As awful as he found the prospect of facing his captivity and eventual fate alone, the idea that T'Laren might be made to suffer for his actions was much, much worse. And if she could be set free, then he couldn't kill her, no matter how much he wanted to die right now.

Besides, he really didn't believe Lhoviri had been telling her the truth about revising the universe for her. Which meant it was quite possible that she'd never actually been dead.

He wrote down the correct formula. "Here. Use this ratio and this timing, and you should have the engines back online within fifteen minutes."

"You'd better be right," Yalit snarled.

"I'm always right," Q said tiredly, suddenly exhausted. He'd been so afraid today, for so long, he was completely worn out. The lack of food wasn't helping, probably.

When the power came back on, the Ferengi whooped and danced around the warp core. Yalit acknowledged him with a nod. "Well. You were telling the truth after all. Will wonders never cease?"

And then it was back to work, back to trying to design modifications for the warp engine so that transwarp wouldn't destroy the crystals again.

By the time he was allowed to return to his room, he was desperate to do so. There had been no shortage of coffee, or water, which he'd drunk enough of to counteract the diuretic effects of the coffee and avoid getting a headache. But there hadn't been any food, since he didn't consider bowls of grubworms to be food. He hadn't eaten anything substantial since breakfast yesterday, and by now he was genuinely extremely hungry. He didn't voluntarily go without food for this long, ordinarily. All the coffee and no food had made him slightly hyper, but hollow, shaking. And the emotional stress of the day wasn't helping.

He wanted to talk to T'Laren, but she was doing more of her endless exercising, not looking at him. "Have you been doing that all day?" he asked disbelievingly. "I realize it must be horrifically boring to be stuck in this room by yourself all day, but surely there's something you could be doing that doesn't involve kicking phantoms in the throat?"

She said nothing. She didn't even look at him. "Yoo-hoo, Ketaya to T'Laren. Come in, T'Laren."

She was still ignoring him. What the hell? "Fine," he said, genuinely upset. "Be that way. I don't need you."

He watched her for a minute. She might as well be a zombie. Her concentration seemed to be completely fixed on the exercise she was doing, which appeared to involve pretending to kill Ferengi – at least the kicks and punches she was delivering were much more in line with where the Ferengi vulnerable points would be than where his would be. And then Q noticed that her knuckles were green. And even worse, there were green spots on the wall. She was hitting the wall hard enough to split her own skin and bleed all over everything. Quite aside from how unsanitary that was, he was worried for her. What was wrong with her, that she had to exercise so hard as to cause herself physical damage, and she couldn't even talk to him?

"Yo, T'Laren." He got up off the couch and walked over to her, reaching out for her. "Is there a reason—"

He never got to finish the sentence. As he came up to her and put a friendly hand on her shoulder, she stiffened under his touch, her head falling back and her back arching slightly. And then she spun to face him, and shoved him, so hard he went flying across the room. "Don't touch me!"

Q landed hard on the carpet, winded, stunned and utterly betrayed. T'Laren had no expression on her face, her eyes glazed, her fists clenched against her chest. "I kept us alive for you!" Q shouted, as soon as he had the ability to speak. "I could have destroyed us all with the cold intermix formula, but I couldn't kill you!"

She looked down at him and took a step backward. Her eyes focused, staring at him. "Lock me away," she said hoarsely, sounding as if she hadn't actually spoken in a week. "I will not harm you… Lock me away."

"Gladly." He stormed over to his closet. It was a little late for her to not harm him, wasn't it? He was going to have bruises on his buttocks and back from that. Her demand that he lock her up made him feel a tiny bit better in some senses – it had to be the drugs doing this to her. Surely if T'Laren were in control of herself, she wouldn't have shoved him across the room. But he was even more terrified now, if less betrayed. He knew T'Laren had killed someone she loved in the midst of an emotional maelstrom before, or at least she believed she had. If T'Laren was willing to throw him across the room, what else might she do? No, he'd happily lock her up. He threw everything out of the walk-in closet, as rapidly as he could.

He filled a couple of vases, with no flowers in them, with water from the bathroom and put them in the closet. Then he found a large brass urn in amidst his unpacked boxes of antiques, and put that in there, his face twisting in a bitter smile. He was offering T'Laren a priceless, thousand-year-old antique for a chamberpot. But he wasn't willing to make her piddle on the carpet in there, after all.

She watched his preparations from her position against the wall, her eyes flickering back and forth as she followed his motions. She said nothing, and Q didn't try to say anything to her. What could he say, after all? She was obviously completely non-rational.

When his preparations were complete, he backed away from the closet. "How am I supposed to feed you when the Ferengi bring dinner?" he asked.

"I will not eat," she said, still hoarse.

"That doesn't sound very smart. How about we figure out some way to get you the food that doesn't involve you violently assaulting me?"

T'Laren shook her head rapidly. "I mean I cannot eat. Until… until this is past… I will not feel hunger, or be able to keep food down."

"Oh. Well, I guess that simplifies things. You want to get in there now?" He motioned at the closet.

She didn't look at him. She turned her head to focus on the closet, and she walked to it and knelt down on the floor inside, still not looking at him.

"How long do I need to keep you in there?" Q asked.

She was silent for a moment. He was about to repeat the question when she said, "In… three days… I should no longer be a danger to you."

"Okay. Three days it is, then." He went back to the closet and hit the button to shut the door. The closet didn't have a button to open it on the other side; if there was voice control a person could ask the computer to open the door if they accidentally got stuck in the closet, but without voice control only the buttons would allow the closet door to open or shut.

As soon as the door was shut, T'Laren started moaning. Q had never heard her make any sound like it – she sounded like she was in agony. Did she need medical attention? Could he even get medical attention for her? She seemed to think she needed to be locked up so she wouldn't hurt him; was her body in so much pain that she would react with violence to even a slight touch? Maybe Yalit had hit her with the neurowhip, or someone else had while he was gone?

He swallowed hard. She might have been raped. She might have been tortured, beaten, whipped with the neurowhip, held down and violated by half a dozen Ferengi, and he had no way to know. And at this point, no way to ask her. Well, maybe he could just go up to the closet and ask her, but her moans were so loud he wasn't sure she'd be able to hear him, and besides she'd ignored almost everything he'd said since he came home. If something terrible had been done to her while he was gone, she obviously wasn't willing to talk about it.

While he was standing there, staring at the door to the closet and frantically trying to decide what he should do, the door opened and a Ferengi entered with a bowl. "Dinnertime, human! Hope you're hungry!"

With a sinking feeling, Q walked over to the bowl, fairly sure of what he'd see, and he wasn't disappointed. Grubworms. He took the bowl from the Ferengi and set it down on the coffee table. "Let me explain something to you," he said, too tired for outrage or anything other than a falsely conversational tone. "I haven't eaten anything since yesterday morning. Your matriarch, your grandma, whatever she is to you, wants me to use my mind, in very complex ways that really do require a steady supply of fuel. But I am not going to eat grubworms." He put the lid back on the bowl and turned away from it. "Now, you may think to yourself that I can be forced to eat grubworms, and you'd be correct. I'm sure you know by now that Yalit has me over a barrel and can force me to do anything at this point. But see, the last time you people made me eat insects, I threw up. And the last time Yalit used the neurowhip on me, I threw up. So I'm inclined to think that if you torture me to force me to eat the grubworms, I might actually eat them but I'll never keep them down. And if I throw up everything I eat, I will still have no fuel for my brain." By now he was standing over the Ferengi, glaring down at him. "So why don't you get me some decent food, that I can eat, or you can explain to grandma why I keep passing out when she's trying to get me to build her a transwarp engine that works."

"The Lady Yalit says it's fine to feed you grubworms."

"The Lady Yalit will figure out that it really wasn't fine after all when I keel over and lose consciousness sometime tomorrow morning. I cannot go without food indefinitely and still use my mind, and I won't eat grubworms. And I won't be able to keep myself from upchucking them if I do. So how about you get me food I won't immediately vomit back up."

The Ferengi scowled and left the room. Q collapsed on the couch. "Well, I guess we'll see if I'm going to starve to death, or be kept alive long enough to betray every principle I have and be condemned to mortality forever," he muttered.

The sounds T'Laren was making were disturbing him badly. If he didn't know better, he'd almost think they sounded like pleasure. Not that he was exactly an expert on the sounds mortals made when experiencing pleasure – as a Q he'd really had very little interest in mortal reproductive activities, and as a human the only sounds of pleasure he'd had opportunity to hear were the ones he couldn't stop himself from making when he was driven to masturbate – but he was an expert on cries of pain, having heard a lot more of those from a greater variety of people than just himself while he was human, and this… sounded just a bit more like pleasure than pain. Which didn't make any sense and he was probably making a mistake, but it was bothering him immensely because he didn't know whether to be horrified for his friend's pain or nauseated, and every so often something would sound so much like a moan of pleasure that it would send shocks through his groin, making his own body stir in wholly unwanted ways, and then he'd remember that in fact the sound probably meant T'Laren was in agony and he'd feel completely disgusted with himself. She'd said the dicydrenaline lowered her emotional control and in essence was making her drunk, but it seemed too far a shift between violently exercising, shoving him, and then – what, masturbating? Exactly how could those sounds mean pleasure, anyway? No, they were probably cries of pain and he was a thoroughly disgusting person for finding any of them even slightly arousing, even involuntarily.

Her moans turned into cries and crescendoed in a series of short, sharp shrieks. And then she was silent. And then she started crying. Q almost went to the door to let her out then, overwhelmed by the need to do something, anything to help her, but what the hell could he do? If she was in terrible physical pain, he couldn't do anything for her – he didn't know how to do so much as a backrub, and if she'd been tortured that probably wouldn't be helpful anyway. If something awful and traumatic had happened to her, what could he do? What could he say? He was abrasive, selfish, completely unempathic – he didn't know what to say to give comfort, what to do, and T'Laren had already told him she thought he'd probably be inept at it and she didn't want to turn to him with her problems, back when they'd argued because she'd talked to Tris about her feelings when tr'Sahlassiu had attacked them both. If she'd wanted his help, she would have asked for it, wouldn't she have?

Besides, if she thought she needed to be locked away to keep from hurting him, maybe it wasn't a good idea to let her out.

The door opened again, and a different Ferengi came in with a tray. This time it was spaghetti with meatballs, again. Q disliked eating the same food in the same week unless he was so depressed that absolutely nothing tasted good and he was choosing food solely for its blandness and inoffensiveness, and he wasn't in that situation now… but it didn't matter. He was starving. He'd eat spaghetti with meatballs every night this week if they'd just feed that to him instead of grubworms; he may have been in the habit, for the past two years or so, of eating only one meal a day, but T'Laren had gotten him used to more food than that, so being forced to skip lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch again had actually hurt. Q retreated into the bedroom with the spaghetti so that he wouldn't have to hear T'Laren crying. Nothing could spoil his appetite right now, but he felt too guilty eating instead of doing whatever unspecified thing he should be doing for her when he could hear her.

Only, after his food was gone, he had nothing else to do. He couldn't read any of his books – technically he'd never read most of them, they were antiques and generally chosen for aesthetic and historical value, but when he'd been a Q researching humanity he had consumed the entire Terran canon of great literature, and all the physical books he owned were in that category. And his memory for what he'd read was too good to get any pleasure out of re-reading anything. But what was he supposed to do? He was in the same position he'd been in every time Anderson had cut off his computer access – without the computer he couldn't pull up new books, couldn't listen to music, couldn't read news or watch flat recordings or play computer games or investigate current research or troll Terran civilian anonytext forums on controversial subjects to stir up arguments or anything. As long as T'Laren had been here, he'd had the opportunity to talk to her or play chess with her, and that had given him enough mental stimulation that he hadn't missed the computer access that much… but now he didn't have her to talk to, and he was left with literally nothing to do but brood on his situation and worry about T'Laren.

He thought he heard screaming. Quickly he went out into the common room where he was closer to the closet and could hear T'Laren better. And he immediately thought better of it and went back into his bedroom. She was screaming obscenities – he would be impressed under other circumstances; he hadn't even known T'Laren knew all those words. When they'd been aboard Yamato together and he'd seen chinks in her perfect Vulcan armor, evidence of her somewhat sordid personal life, he'd been amused and delighted… but this was too much vulnerability, too much exposure. He was deeply embarrassed for her, and the only thing he could think to do was to remove himself from the situation so she wouldn't have to deal with knowing that he'd seen and heard every out of control thing she did, once this was over.

What did she mean by three days, anyway? Was it going to take that long for the drug to leave her system, when she was fasting? Or had they done something else to her?

This was getting him nowhere. His stomach clenched with so much tension that he was afraid he might throw up anyway, he couldn't sit still, and he was still absolutely bored, unable to stop obsessing over T'Laren's problems because he had nothing else he could do. He had to find something to distract himself.

The self-powered slate from earlier today gave him an idea. Q had an antique fountain pen, an ink bottle, and a pad of parchment, for absolutely no good reason except that some antiques dealer had been using them to add period flair to her receipts, and Q had demanded that she sell him a set too. He had never used them for anything; he'd always thought that if he ever wanted to send a letter to Picard, he'd use the archaic paper and pen rather than a recording because Picard would appreciate the gesture, except now Picard was dead and the letter Q had been putting off writing to him for three years would never be written. The Continuum would be horrified at him doing this, the Federation might well put him on trial for giving the Ferengi secrets he wouldn't give them, but if Yalit was going to blame him and threaten to whip him every time something went wrong, he needed to make sure nothing ever went wrong again. And that meant figuring out, on his own, how to redesign the Thetaran transwarp drive so it could run on dilithium crystals, or some alternate fuel that everyone in the Alpha Quadrant had easy access to.

Because transwarp was far too great an advance to give the primitive peoples of the Alpha Quadrant, including his hosts, Q had never worked on it or dug too deeply into how he would go about creating a transwarp drive; it wasn't his job to invent new technology, it was his job to give Starfleet engineers ideas that they could implement in inventing new technology. He was, mostly, supposed to be doing pure science, not applied theory. But it was, most assuredly, part of his job description to find problems with other people's implementations, and offer solutions. He couldn't have built a transwarp drive from scratch, not without a month or two to work on the problem, but with a Thetaran drive in front of him he could identify the problems with it and figure out how to fix them.

So. He had a drive that required six-dimensional helical crystals, and he didn't have any. What he had was dilithium, which were four-dimensional transverse helices, and he couldn't teach anyone in this part of space how to manufacture six-dim crystals without giving them even more vastly disruptive scientific advances than transwarp itself. Technologies that existed around here included the quantum singularities that the Romulans used to power their warp drives, but while he understood the principle behind that perfectly well he didn't have the faintest idea how the Romulans actually implemented the fiddly engineering details. There were other substances around that had similar properties to dilithium – trilithium, which would almost work except that it was extremely unstable and would probably blow up without a transwarp field; quadronium, which would be great except that it was highly radioactive; seletherium, which could handle the transwarp stresses well but was mostly only found in the Delta Quadrant, and which the Borg went out of their way to monopolize. None of them seemed quite feasible to use instead. But if he was stuck with the dilithium, what could he do to keep the transwarp field stable and keep the crystals from blowing?

For hours, Q wrote notes to himself and drew schematics. The schematics, of course, had numerous portions randomly rotated, with notation in the Vizoran mathematical system describing the angle and direction of rotation – something the Ferengi were never likely to figure out, as not only did Vizoran math use base 12 and have a system of 432 degrees to describe angles instead of 360, but their numbers looked like doodles of cute fuzzy alien animals. (They were actually doodles of cute fuzzy alien animals. Q no longer remembered why the Vizoran number 1 looked like a meerkat with tentacles or why 2 looked something like a lemur, but he did remember that for some reason the Vizorans had assigned all of their digits to stylized sketches of their most common pet creatures.) With the random rotations there was no way that anyone but him could possibly use the schematics safely to build anything. The notes couldn't be disguised so easily, since Q no longer remembered any non-Terran alphabet well enough to write in it, but he did randomly shift between Roman, Cyrillic and Arabic writing systems, and since the Arabic was written backwards that would add some additional confusion. Any human analyst could easily enough decipher the notes, but the Universal Translator didn't handle writing nearly as well as it handled speech and the only Terran writing system found commonly off of Earth was the Roman alphabet, so likely the Ferengi would never have seen either Cyrillic or Arabic.

By morning, his eyes were burning and his limbs felt leaden, but he had made substantial progress toward redesigning the entire transwarp power matrix and he'd managed to temporarily ignore T'Laren's issues and his fear for his own fate, at least for the night. He was still working when he heard the door in the main room open, either with breakfast or with his escort to engineering. Q got up and went out to the other room; he didn't particularly want to – the work he was doing was much more engaging than having to deal with Ferengi, and he didn't really want to stop to eat – but he couldn't afford to have the Ferengi hanging around in the room with the closet that T'Laren was locked in. It wasn't really locked per se – anyone on this side of the door could open it, it was just that there was no means to open it from the inside.

T'Laren was whimpering. The sound stabbed him in the heart, and twisted the knife when he realized that there were words, and the words were "please… Q… please, I need you…" He swallowed hard; he couldn't deal with this in front of the Ferengi. "What do you want?" he asked the Ferengi harshly.

"Here's your breakfast," the guard said. "Eat quickly; the Lady Yalit wants to see you in engineering in half an hour."

"Fine. This had better be edible; I spent all night doing work for her, and if I don't get real food, that I can eat, I will most likely pass out from starvation later today." He opened the lid of the tray. Eggs and bacon again. If all they ever fed him was eggs and bacon for breakfast, and spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, he would eventually come down with some sort of vitamin deficiency disease. But then, it was unlikely that he'd remain a captive of the Ferengi long enough for it to become a problem. "Is there coffee?"

"There'll be coffee in engineering."

"That'll have to do, I suppose," he said with bad grace. He took the food over as far as the table, waiting for the Ferengi to leave. The Ferengi didn't.

"Is there a problem?" Q asked.

The Ferengi grinned cruelly. "Aren't you going to do something about your friend in there? She's begging for you."

Another thrust to the heart. Q had to ignore it, had to pretend he didn't care, that T'Laren's pleas weren't tearing him apart inside. "As I'm not a doctor, I fail to see what I could possibly do for her. Now, was there some reason you needed to continue to be here, or can I eat my breakfast in peace?"

"I know what she needs," the Ferengi said, snickering. "You don't need to be a doctor for that."

"Are you making some sort of sordid innuendo?" Q said. "Because the last time I checked, mortal genitalia don't actually cure anything in other people except possibly sexual frustration, and I rather think there's a bit more wrong with T'Laren than that."

The Ferengi still snickered. "You don't even know what's wrong with her, do you?"

"Well, enlighten me then, o sadistic font of wisdom. What did you people do to her?"


He could guess far too many possibilities. Did you rape her? Did you torture her? Is she having a reaction to your drugs? Did you stun her too many times, did you hit her with your neurowhips? But he couldn't actually ask any of those things, because if the answer to any of those guesses was 'yes', he wasn't sure he could stop himself from trying to commit physical violence on the Ferengi, and given that the fellow had a phaser and Yalit had a neurowhip she was eager to use on him, that would probably accomplish absolutely nothing except to get him stunned and tortured, which would do T'Laren no good whatsoever, and do him even less. "I'm not interested in playing Twenty Questions with you. Tell me what you did to her, or get out of my room so I can eat."

"I guess you can just eat your breakfast, then," the Ferengi said, still with that malicious grin, and left the room.

As soon as he was gone, Q went to the closet door. "T'Laren? T'Laren, can you hear me?"

The response was weak, hoarse. "…Q?"

"You were asking for me. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Nothing. "T'Laren? Can you hear me?"

"…please… I need you… please…"

"Okay. I'm going to let you out and we can figure out what I can realistically do for you, all right?"

His hand went to the button, and then she yelled, "Don't!"

He jerked away from it, startled. "I don't understand. Don't what? You don't want me to let you out?"

"don't… I will not harm you… I will not…"

"If you aren't going to harm me, then I think I should let you out."

"not safe… my control…"

"So you think you are going to harm me? Look, T'Laren, should I let you out or not? I can't help you with a door between us."

"…yes… please, help me… I must… I need you… please…"

"Fine. I'm going to let you out."


He was getting very, very frustrated with this conversation. "T'Laren, do you want me to help you or don't you?"

For several seconds there was silence. "T'Laren? Are you still there?"

"What I need… what I want… will hurt you." She sounded almost normal, for exhausted and hoarse values of normal.

Q swallowed. "What, have you turned into a vampire or something? You need to drink the blood of the living?" No answer. Of course T'Laren hadn't much of a sense of humor at the best of times. "If you need to commit some violence, I could let you out when the Ferengi are in the room. It doesn't have to be me you beat up."

"no… I've chosen and I cannot unchoose… it must be you… I need you…" The last was a plea, heartbreakingly desperate, that almost drove him to open the door anyway. But then she said, "I will not… I will not allow myself… to harm you… so don't let me out. Whatever I say, whatever I do, however much I beg you… ignore me. Don't let me out."

He closed his eyes. She was the one who'd know how much of a threat she was to him, so the only smart thing to do was to honor her wishes. But it was tearing him apart having to ignore her, even though he should be very, very adept at ignoring other people's needs… but since he'd become mortal no one had ever needed him. Well, during the battle with the Borg, yes, but no one had needed him personally. Being needed by a fellow mortal when you were mortal yourself was much more like being needed by a fellow Q when you were Q than being needed by mortals when you were Q, a condition Q had generally despised when he found it in mortals, except when he'd engineered the lack of self-sufficiency himself like when he'd used the Borg to make Picard admit to needing him. Which, come to think of it, had also felt dangerously like being needed, or unneeded, by fellow Q. In the Continuum no one had needed him since Azi… and he really didn't need to think about that now.

"Can you just tell me what the problem is? I mean, the night before last you were just acting like you were overtired or a little drunk or something, and then you barely talked to me in the morning, and when I came back you threw me across the room for touching your shoulder. Did the Ferengi do something to you while I was gone?"

She said something in Vulcan that the translator refused to catch. And then there was a loud thump, and another, like she was throwing herself at the closed door. "Let me out!" she screamed. "I need you, oh god, I need to fuck you, let me out, I'll swallow you whole, I need to have you, let me OUT…"

Q didn't hear the rest of it, whatever she was saying. It sounded far too much like the obscenities she'd been shouting at the Ferengi yesterday, rage-filled promises of sexual violence, or just plain violence. He didn't know why she wanted to hurt him, but the shouting and the throwing herself at the door made it much more clear that in fact she was totally not in control of herself than her confused mishmash of pleading for him and warning him off had done. He grabbed his food and ran for the bedroom, hiding there, forcing himself to eat even though the food was tasteless and his appetite was gone, because if he wasn't at his best in dealing with Yalit she'd torture him and so he couldn't afford the distraction of hunger. He was breathing heavily, his hands shaking. Whatever they'd done to T'Laren had driven her insane. His only friend in the universe wanted to hurt him, and obviously was restraining herself by the thinnest, frailest remnant of control imaginable. He couldn't imagine what was going through her head, but he was desperately grateful that she'd managed to pull enough of herself together to tell him that if she let him out she'd hurt him, that the thing she was pleading for was apparently his suffering, before he'd made the mistake of opening the door.

Of course, maybe he should. Vulcans were much stronger than humans, and when their emotional control broke down, much more violent. T'Laren would probably beat him to death much, much faster than two human security guards had done, and with considerably less pain than he'd suffered from the neurowhip. But there was always the chance that she'd manage to restrain herself after breaking several of his bones but before killing him, leaving him in a limbo of living agony until Yalit got around to getting him medical treatment, which, given how Yalit seemed to think he could work through any level of pain or terror, would probably be never. No, suicide-by-crazy-Vulcan wasn't reliable enough a method of death to try it.

The door chimed. He wondered why they were bothering to chime him when usually they just walked in, and then realized that T'Laren was screaming loudly enough that he might not hear it if the door simply opened. Q grabbed his notes and walked out. The two Ferengi were paying much too much attention to the closet, and the obscene things T'Laren was yelling. She was still throwing herself at the door. "I'm leaving now!" Q shouted at the closet. "Try to get yourself under control!"

And then he left with his escort, headed for Engineering.

Get herself under control? That was an impossibility. As soon as she heard the door shut, as soon as the maddening scent of him and the sound of his voice were gone, T'Laren collapsed to her knees in the dark closet and sobbed.

Every effort she had made to get it under control had failed. While he'd been gone yesterday, the need had grown stronger and stronger. She'd even gone to the bathroom, put on the shower to hide any sounds from the Ferengi, and masturbated… three times, and it hadn't helped. The desire had come back each time, stronger than ever. All the calming exercises she tried, all the meditation, all the martial arts katas, were nothing to the need. Her skin was a raw nerve, longing for touch. She was burning up, and all she could think of was quenching the heat with cool, wet human flesh pressed against hers. Mindlessly, she did her exercises, because the only thing that could hold off the need at all was to lose herself in imaginary violence, use her body hard and savagely.

And then Q had come back to the room, and the urge to throw him down and fling herself on top of him, enter his mind and meld with him, set him on fire with the heat burning through her and fuck him wildly, was overwhelming. It was so powerful, so demanding a need that she had to ignore him completely, didn't dare even so much as speak to him. Of course this meant that she hadn't had a way to warn Q of the problem, so he had actually come up to her and touched her… and if she hadn't thrown him far away from her, out of her reach or even out of the reach she could have if she lunged, she would have raped him then and there.

There had been no help for it, nothing else that could be done. She had to be locked away, or she would assault Q. Her control was gone, her need was consuming her, and none of the disciplines were helping in the slightest anymore. Her body, her mind, her survival drive, all conspired to betray her higher emotions and her ethics, and if she were not physically kept away from Q she wouldn't be able to stop herself. Of course when Q had asked her how long it would be before he could let her out, she hadn't told him that if she didn't fulfill her need within a few days, she would die, burned out on adrenaline and lust. She'd told him that in three days she wouldn't be a threat to him anymore. Which was quite true, because by then she'd be dead, unconscious or too weak to move.

But when it was done and she was locked up in the dark, the emotions she could no longer control overwhelmed her. She'd masturbated again, just to get enough control over the lust that she could feel anything else, and when orgasm had lulled her overwhelming need into temporary remission, despair and grief had taken over. She was going to die, horribly. Perhaps no one could see her humiliation anymore, but they could all hear her. She had thought that she cared little for her own life – she had cast it away, after all, and Lhoviri had had to go to great effort to convince her to live at all. The most important thing had been doing the job Lhoviri had required of her, repaying the debt for his work in undoing her crime. If she had to die protecting Q, she had thought that that would be perfectly acceptable. But no, it seemed she had developed much more attachment to her existence than that.

She didn't want to leave Q behind, alone, and she didn't want to lose Tris and Sovaz again when she had just been reunited with them and mended the rift caused by the crimes no one but she remembered anymore. And at the base of it, she just didn't want to die. She had died before, and knew there was nothing beyond it, regardless of what Q said. It was not something to be feared, particularly – it was nonexistence, oblivion. The dead didn't care that they were dead. But it was the end of experience, the end of thinking, the end of being. What she felt when she thought of her own impending death was much more grief than fear; if she died, she would be separated from everything she enjoyed by the simple fact that she wouldn't exist to enjoy them anymore. And it was so horribly unfair that she should die this way, that something the Ferengi thought was a practical joke they could use to humiliate Q by tormenting "his woman" would kill her, because they were ignorant and because they couldn't give her what she needed and because neither could Q, not without paying a price she was not willing to make him pay.

The entire night she did not sleep. She swung back and forth between rage at the Ferengi, grief for herself, and her horrifyingly mind-destroying lust for Q. She masturbated so often her clitoris was raw, but it gave her less and less relief each time, until finally she couldn't even have orgasms from it anymore, her body stretched tight on the rack of need, wound tighter and tighter and unable to achieve even the tiniest modicum of relief. She paced in the closet, energy coiling through her that had no release, and punched the walls until her already sore and bloody knuckles tore again, kicked the wall with her bare feet until they were so bruised and battered she could barely still walk on them, and still the energy would not allow her to be still. She was so exhausted, so weary, but when she tried to lie down her entire body twitched and jerked and writhed until she had to get up again and keep pacing, exercising, doing what few martial arts she could in such a tiny space.

She begged Lhoviri for some way out of this, some last-minute miraculous recovery, and laughed mockingly at herself because she knew perfectly well Lhoviri wasn't her god and wasn't going to intervene directly to save her. Given how much recovered Q was from his suicidal depression, in fact, Lhoviri might actually have no further use for her. For all she knew Lhoviri had engineered this whole thing to remove her from Q's life now that her purpose was done. And with all the terrible things Lhoviri had allowed to happen to Q, who he was ostensibly watching out for, it was impossible to imagine that he would actually do anything for her.

By the time morning came she was broken, desperate. She pleaded with Q to give her the release she needed, knowing that he wasn't actually even in the room to hear her because she couldn't hear or smell him. And then she'd heard the outer door open, the Ferengi come in the room and announce himself, and knew it meant Q would come out where he could hear her, but she couldn't stop. In fact knowing that Q would hear her now made her beg more desperately, forcing a voice hoarse from exhaustion and dehydration and too much screaming to keep talking, keep begging, because if he heard her surely he would come to her and open the door and save her, surely he would satisfy her, and she couldn't stop thinking of what it would be like if she could finally touch him and get some relief from this.

Fantasies of flinging Q to the floor, ripping his clothes off, plunging her tongue into his mouth and her telepathy into his mind and swallowing his penis with her hungry vagina, grinding against him and pounding herself against his body and feeling his mind in hers, forcing her pleasure into him and then satisfying the needs she'd impose on him as she'd use his body to satisfy her needs, consumed her. When she'd heard him say that he would open the door, that was all she could think of doing, all she could want. Only at the last possible moment did she remember why she didn't want to do that, why doing that to Q was the worst possible betrayal she could commit. She'd pulled herself together just enough to warn him off, to tell him what kind of danger he'd be in if he did let her out. And then he hadn't let her out. He'd asked her what was wrong with her, as if she could actually tell him where the Ferengi could hear, and all she could think was that he wasn't letting her out, he wasn't giving her what she needed to live, and her mood had swung back to rage and lust and she'd started throwing herself at the door, screaming at him to let her out, to give her the release she needed so desperately.

And now he was gone, and she was broken again, overwhelmed with grief and exhaustion. Q wouldn't save her, because she had stopped him from doing so. He would stand by and let her die, because she had never told him what was at stake. It was all her own fault, all things she had done to protect him, but it meant there would never ever ever be a release from this pain and need until she was dead of it. She thought of the red shoes in the Terran children's story, of being compelled to dance until you dropped dead of exhaustion. It didn't sound like such a horrible death to a small child; in fact it had sounded kind of funny. But it wasn't funny at all, was it. Being driven to move until your body burned out, being exhausted and wanting sleep and being wholly unable to until you died of it… this was a truly terrible way to die. And the humiliation of it, the fact that she could barely talk, that she couldn't have a sane and rational conversation with a fellow sentient being for longer than five minutes before her need would compel her to do something completely irrational, the fact that other people could hear her total loss of emotional control… she almost wished death would come faster, would free her of this horror. If she did live through this, she would never be able to bear the humiliation; almost better to die.

But she still didn't want to die.

At least, she thought, Q would be safe. If there was anything she could cling to for comfort, it was that she couldn't harm him. She wanted him so very badly, but it would destroy him if she took him; now she was locked away to die, and he had no idea she was dying, would never know what she was going through until it was too late and she could not harm him.

In engineering, Q met with Yalit. She immediately fixated on his papers. "What are those?"

"The solution to your little problem," Q said. "Of course, I've altered the diagrams in crucial ways so that if you try to follow what I've written down, just the way I've written it down, you really will blow us all up. You'll need me to interpret the design for you, but this is the basic outline of how we would remodel the transwarp drive so that it would actually work. In fact you could build one from scratch with these notes, if you had me to tell you what the diagrams are actually supposed to look like. You don't even need to modify the one on this ship; you could use the replicators to build a new one and install it on your own ship."

Yalit glared at the papers. "And exactly why am I supposed to believe you'd do such a thing? You've cooperated, if I can even call it that, very reluctantly. Even after I disciplined you for lying to me, you sat back and blithely let us run into a failure that blew out the power net."

"Well, since you made it clear yesterday that even if I warn you that you're making a mistake, you'll completely ignore me, make the mistake, and then blame me and threaten to torture me for your failure, I thought it was fairly imperative to make sure you don't make any more mistakes. With this, I can ensure that if you follow my instructions, you can build the thing you want to sell without any more problems. And I've made decoding the thing properly complicated enough that if I'm in too much pain or fear to think straight, I won't be able to decipher my own notes correctly, which will probably result in all of us dying. So you have incentive, now, not to hurt me."

"And how do I know you're not going to blow up the ship anyway?"

"Well, firstly, because you can test any component I show you. And secondly… given what you and I discussed about why I didn't blow up the ship yesterday…" His expression hardened. "You're going to treat T'Laren for whatever you've done to her, because that's the only way you can be sure that any advice I give you won't blow up the ship. She's gone insane from whatever you did, and I know for a fact she would rather die than live that way. So unless you have a way to undo it, give her the antidote to your drugs or fix whatever it is you've done… you have no more leverage against me, and you won't be able to trust anything I tell you."

"You so sure I have no leverage against you? I have this." She patted the neurowhip coiled on the belt that was the only article of clothing she was wearing at all.

He would not show her fear. Not now. "All that little device is going to do for you is make me more dedicated to the cause of killing myself, or you, or all of us," Q said softly. "Yes, you can make me break down and promise you anything. We've seen that much. But we've also seen that you can't actually check my work well enough to be certain I'm not lying to you. So unless you have a way to make sure T'Laren survives, and gets well, you may as well just sell me off now and forget about transwarp, because you can't solve it without me and you can't trust me if she dies or loses her mind permanently."

And then Yalit laughed.

Q was taken aback. "Even to your puerile sense of humor, I'm sure what I said was not that hilarious."

"We can save your pal," Yalit said, sneering and giggling at the same time. "We'd need to wait a day or so until she's weaker for it to be safe, but my boys would be perfectly happy to help her out, even after everything she's done. But if you want to speed things up, you can take matters into your own hands any time you want to take the risk."

Q stared. "What are you talking about?"

Yalit was still laughing. "You don't even know what's wrong with her, do you?" She grinned even more broadly. "It's that Romulan aphrodisiac stuff. Far togan, or whatever its name was. It's actually true, all she needs is a good fuck."

His blood went ice cold, remembering what T'Laren had said about that drug. "The drug they spoke of would have killed me…" "I can't discuss this any further, Q. But yes. A drug that makes Romulans feel desire, kills Vulcans. I cannot explain..."

"You've killed her," he whispered in absolute horror. "She said… she said that stuff kills Vulcans."

"Oh, she was full of it," Yalit snapped. "It wouldn't do the Romulans a damn bit of good to use it to breed female Vulcans if it killed them, now would it?"


"It's that stuff they use, you know. When they take Vulcan prisoners and they breed them, to get halfbreeds with Vulcan telepathy. They give it to the men to make them fuck, and they give it to the women to keep 'em from blocking their own fertility with their minds, or whatever they do. All it does is make them need to have sex. Yeah, they'll die if they don't get fucked, but as long as they get a good long screw they'll be fine." She grinned at Q again. "Now, see, my boys were all ready to help your pal out, but she got violent with them, tried to kill them. So none of them want to go anywhere near her until she's just about passed out from it. But, you know, she's such a good friend of yours… and she's really suffering, you know. The way this stuff does for them, all she can think about is sex. You multiply the horniest you've ever been by about twenty thousand… well, according to you you're never horny, so maybe you don't get it, but the point is she's crawling out of her skin. She needs a fuck so bad she can't even think about anything else… and maybe you're man enough to give it to her. Or maybe you're not, and she'll have to suffer another day or two till my boys can take care of her."

Q's eyes were fixed on Yalit's face, the horror he felt only growing with everything she said. He believed her completely, or at least, believed that she believed it. But if T'Laren had tried to kill the Ferengi rather than have sex with them, then it didn't actually make it better if they were saving her life. "You do realize that putting a person in a position where if they don't have sex with you they'll die is still raping them, if they wouldn't have touched you with someone else's ten-meter pole before you drugged them."

She scowled fiercely. "You don't know a goddamn thing about it. You're a man. What the fuck do you know about rape?"

"I know that it's not what happens when your client stiffs you on the bill," he snapped back. "Which seems to be more than you would know about it."

Her face went purple. "How dare you!" she snarled. She grabbed the neurowhip and poked it at him. Despite his rage at her for what she'd just admitted doing to T'Laren, he stepped back in sudden fear. "You think you have some concept of what rape is? How about I have my boys fuck you up the ass? Then you might have some idea!"

"Don't be a bigger moron than you already are," Q snarled back. "I'm perfectly aware that violent sexual assault constitutes rape. You wouldn't be teaching me anything I didn't know already, you'd just be proving what a barbarian you are. But any violation of your will, of what you've chosen to do when you were in your right mind, any attempt to coerce your will or control you… it doesn't matter if your body wants it at the moment because you're drunk or drugged or because you're going to die if you don't do it, it is still rape. Which is the part you don't seem to be grasping, but I would imagine that a woman who voluntarily chose to live on a planet of virulently misogynistic cretins who have no concept that she has a mind, or a value outside of being a sexual orifice, might have some difficulty with the concept of consent. I could pity you for the things you've presumably endured at their hands, if it weren't for the fact that you seem perfectly comfortable with turning around and inflicting those things on other people… not just on people who've done nothing except insult you, but on people who have literally done nothing to you at all. T'Laren never harmed you, she never insulted you, she even tried to talk me into being slightly less vocal in my disgust with you, back on Yamato. But you're quite fine with the notion of giving her a drug that compels her to have sex, so she can be a whore for your sons and grandsons, and you think this is perfectly okay because if she needs to have sex to save her life, she'd actually be grateful for their abuses, or something. Or you actually just don't think she's a person and you don't care, at all."

"You really want me to whip you, don't you?"

"Why don't you just kill me? You've just ensured that I won't do anything to help you achieve transwarp. Even if T'Laren lives through this… do you think she's really going to want to remember being violated by your trollish offspring, even if that's what's needed to save her life from the problem you caused her?"

"Well, if you're so eager to protect her honor, you could do her yourself. Assuming you can. She's been begging for you for hours. Maybe that means she won't rip your lobes off and stomp your ribs in like she did to my grandsons."

"I can't believe you did this to her. I… even the Ferengi are supposed to be more civilized than this. Why? Why did you do this to someone who did you no harm? Just because it was fun?"

"I didn't do you any goddamn harm before you started trying to destroy me!"

And that brought him up horribly short, because she was right. He had started insulting Yalit for his personal amusement, and to test her and see if she was worth his time, as soon as he met her, and he'd kept doing it because she kept rising to the bait and it was hilarious. He took a deep breath. "Maybe so. But there's really several astronomical units' worth of difference between tormenting someone with a few insults, and tormenting them with a drug that forces them to be raped or die."

"It wouldn't be rape if you did it for her. She wants you." Her grin came back, more malicious than ever. "But you can't, can you? Because having sex with a mortal's like fucking a Klingon targ, for you. You couldn't even get it up for her, could you?"

That would not be the problem. "Whether or not I can do what she needs isn't the point. You've already done the damage. She didn't want me, before she was drugged; she made that perfectly clear. So you've changed what she wants, by force, with a drug. It won't be any less rape if I do it."

"She doesn't need it any less because you think it'd be raping her," Yalit said. "And if you don't, my boys will. We don't kill prisoners if we don't have to; that's a waste of latinum. I can ransom her back to the Federation; they'll think she knows something about where you're going, and they'll pay a pretty penny to have that information back in their hands, even if they weren't soft enough to pay the ransom anyway. We'll make sure she lives. We just have to wait until she can't fight back. But whether you do her or not, someone's gonna give the poor Vulcan bitch the fuck of her life, and I bet she'd rather it be you. Too bad you're a eunuch."

Q swallowed. The thought of letting T'Laren suffer, for days, and then be raped by the Ferengi, after apparently she'd been so upset and frightened by the possibility that she had tried to kill some of them, was completely unpalatable. But the other alternative really wasn't appealing. Not when T'Laren had made it so very clear that if he let her out, she would hurt him. He strongly suspected the Ferengi were actually wrong about some part of this; T'Laren had been certain the drug would kill her, not just set her up to be raped. Something Yalit thought about this whole situation was wrong – not just morally wrong, which all of it was, but factually wrong. But he didn't know what. What if he went to T'Laren, and she broke his bones and beat him senseless, and then she died anyway? What if she'd been both truthful and knowledgeable when she'd said with conviction that the drug would kill her?

If all she wanted from him was sex, she would never have asked him to lock her away. He'd told T'Laren, when they'd been together aboard Ketaya before docking with Yamato, that he'd be willing to give up his virginity for something more meaningful than the mere gratification of lust, and certainly saving a friend's life qualified. He didn't know whether she knew how attractive his body found her – he'd tried his best to hide that – but it wouldn't have mattered anyway, not with her life at stake. Of course he'd have agreed to help her, if sex was the only thing she needed. But she'd been convinced she would hurt him, and had begged him to lock her away, and given that T'Laren was not a moron and knew him better than any other mortal alive, he had to assume there was a reason for that. There was something she needed besides just sex.

"I tell you what. I'll let you out of work today – you were burning the midnight oil last night to make those documents, I know. And if they're what you say they are they'll speed us up a lot. You wanna go back to your cell and see what you can do for your pal, I'll let you do that."

And watch every minute of it, Q realized. Possibly record it for posterity. Damn T'Laren and her decision to hide monitors in his room, anyway.

But what could he do? She was letting him go back to the cell to try to help T'Laren. He had no idea if he even could help her – what if the reason she hadn't come to him was that she knew her Vulcan strength and the irrationality the drug had pushed on her would cause her to break his fragile human body if they did have sex? What if there was nothing he could do to save her? But he couldn't turn down the opportunity to at least try to help his friend, and there was no way he could do anything for her at all if he wasn't in the cell with her. "Fine. You do that. If she lives, you'll still have something to hold over me to get me to give you transwarp without blowing up the ship."

"I told you already, she'll live. My boys are more than capable of giving her what she needs." Yalit leered. "Even with Vulcan stamina I'm sure twenty or so Ferengi boys can quiet her down just fine."

He hadn't thought it was possible to be more horrified by this situation. "Twenty?" Three Ferengi had taken her to the swimming pool, five had threatened her on the bridge, and he'd thought those things were terrible, but gang rape by twenty men was an order of magnitude worse than three or five.

"Sure, everyone aboard's gonna want to take a turn. Of course, if you think you can be man enough for her, feel free to try. If you're not enough for her, my boys don't mind taking your leftovers."

He really would find a way to blow up the ship before it came to that. Rape, per se, wasn't a fate worse than death in his opinion, but being gang-raped by twenty men, and tortured with a drug that made your body betray you and want it, after being made to suffer such horrible need that you literally lost your mind, really sounded like it might qualify. "If she's actually been asking for me, I'm sure she considers me far superior in any ability to meet her needs than your hideous brood."

"I'm going to be very interested in seeing if that's true or not." She waved at one of the male Ferengi. "Yark, Takim – take him back to his cell for the day. I'm taking the day off to go to the control room and watch the show."

All the way back to the cell, Q's mind raced, trying to figure out what the catch was, why T'Laren hadn't simply told him what she needed, what it was she needed besides sex.

If it really was only sex, if that was all it had ever been, she would have been a fool to let herself suffer like this. He'd have helped her – not only willingly, but, he had to admit, happily. Not that anything made the Ferengi's actions justifiable or better or a good thing in any sense, but… Q's fear of mortal sexuality had never been about sex per se. Yes, it was disgusting, but so was eating and he'd gotten used to that. The problem had always been his fear of vulnerability, of humiliation, of what humans did to those who sought pleasure without having any idea how to return it. And if it was about saving a friend's life, not about his personal pleasures, then there was no issue there. He didn't need to be attractive, he didn't need to be skilled, he could be completely inept and totally naïve and he'd still be a big hero for doing something distasteful for his friend's sake. T'Laren wouldn't humiliate him, or reject him, or give him a completely confusing speech about how he was attractive except he wasn't, or give him patronizing advice, or look down on him… No, if all she needed was sex there was no downside to saving her.

But she had to know that. He'd told her what his problems with sex were, he'd told her the conditions he'd need before he'd end his celibacy, and she'd know that saving her life would absolutely qualify. To be frank, in fact, saving her from extreme but not life-threatening discomfort would have qualified… to be brutally and totally frank, this was T'Laren, and he trusted her as much as he could trust any mortal being, and her opening up her mouth and telling him that she found him desirable and wanted to sleep with him might quite possibly have qualified. Actually, as long as he could be sure that she wasn't doing it because she thought he needed to learn about sex or as some sort of therapy, it almost certainly would have qualified.

He didn't know if T'Laren had known exactly how pleased he'd have been at the opportunity to help her with her problem if it was only sex she needed, since he'd done his best to hide his body's reactions to her, but he was sure she knew that he'd at least be willing. If he was willing to give himself up to a fairly agonizing death at the hands of the Calamarain to save people who had given him the most grudging of sanctuary, of course he'd be willing to have sex to save his best friend's life. So there absolutely had to be more to it than that. But what?

She had been violent to him – had thrown him across the room when all he'd done was touch her, had warned him not to open the door or she would attack him. And she'd tried to kill the Ferengi. Was she afraid of accidentally killing him, or maiming him? It seemed possible, given the evidence, but… Q knew that Vulcan males had married human females. The famous scientist, diplomat and sidekick to the always amusing James T. Kirk, Spock, was the product of such a union. And if this drug worked by triggering the cycle T'Laren had said Vulcan males and the Vulcan women bonded to them suffered from anyway, then obviously humans could survive sex with Vulcans in its throes without getting badly hurt. Q might feel more fragile than the average human, having had invulnerability to compare his current mortality to, but he knew, intellectually, that the average human woman was weaker than he was, or at least weaker than he was when he wasn't starving himself to death. If human women could survive sex with Vulcan men in pon farr, he should be able to survive sex with a Vulcan woman, particularly one who claimed she was weaker than the average Vulcan from being raised in Earth gravity. It was possible that the drug made its victims more violent than the regular pon farr did, but then it would be a remarkably stupid drug for the Romulans to give to the captives they wanted to rape and breed… especially the women, who they could probably rape and impregnate without help from a drug.

And then he remembered, from the information he'd seen in tr'Sahlassiu's mind, why Romulans wanted to breed with Vulcan captives, and he remembered exactly what T'Laren had said about what the drug would do to her, and everything clicked horribly into place.

"The need to mate or die appears linked to the genes that control telepathy. So evolutionarily, telepathy must have conveyed enough of an advantage that the trait did not die out."

"…you would make a very unpleasant meld partner. My sexuality is inextricably tied to my telepathy- I am better off with my own imagination than with a man I can't meld with."

"…a Vulcan male will endure... a mating cycle. That is... he becomes incapable of thinking about much else. And if he does not, during this time, mate with someone and establish a telepathic bond with them, he will die."

"…It arouses the plak tow, the blood fever. Only a combination of sex and a mind meld would save my life then, and I cannot meld with Ferengi. But before I died I would be consumed with madness- violence as much as lust…"

It wasn't about sex. Not only sex, anyway. She needed sex and a mindmeld.

The door to his room opened, and Q stumbled in, completely ignoring the innuendo of the Ferengi guards behind him and their snickering. It made sense, it made horrifying sense, because Ferengi were psi-null. Power like the Q had could read their minds, of course, but ordinary mortal telepaths couldn't make any kind of connection; their four-lobed brains set up interference patterns of psi and antipsi such that no mortal telepath could read them. If T'Laren needed sex and a telepathic connection, it wouldn't matter how many Ferengi men had intercourse with her. The cycle wouldn't complete, and it would never end.

The horror of it was stunning. Yalit didn't know, none of the Ferengi knew, but what they thought was a hilarious practical joke, and an opportunity to gang-rape T'Laren while making her react as if she found it pleasurable, would kill her. She'd been right, and Yalit was wrong. Twenty Ferengi goons could gang-rape her and it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. She'd still need, and need, until she died of it.

And it made sense why T'Laren had been begging for him, why she had made him lock her away. Maybe her throwing him across the room hadn't been an act of violence like he'd thought; maybe she'd been trying to get him out of range so she wouldn't force a mindmeld on him. Because if what he suspected was true… and he was becoming more and more sure that it was… he was the only other being on this ship with a psionic presence of any kind. He was the only person here who could give T'Laren what she needed to live.

If only it had been anything else. He sat down at the table and slumped, supporting his head by resting his forehead on his open palm, his elbow on the table and his arm pointing up to brace his head. In the closet, T'Laren had been crying weakly when he came in, and now she was begging again, her voice even more hoarse and broken than it had sounded earlier this morning. He could even have borne the threat of physical violence more easily than this. If he'd thought T'Laren would break his ribs or his limbs or make him engage in sex acts so rough he ended up bruised and battered, that would have been better than this. Frankly, if he'd thought T'Laren would grow a penis and need to rape him anally like Yalit had threatened to have her goons do to him, it would have been better than this. A Q had no particular attachment to genital integrity as opposed to any other body part; pain was pain, and while pain caused by someone else using you for sexual pleasure was certainly horribly humiliating, so was pain caused by someone else beating and kicking and stomping on you, or pain caused by someone pinning you down and flogging you with a neurowhip. Being made helpless, suffering pain at someone else's hands and being made to beg and scream… that was about equally horrible whether they did it by stripping you naked and forcing you into sex acts or by cutting your skin with bone knives while you were tied down and gagged or by covering you with stinging insects. Q had perhaps picked up more of the unique emotional charge mortals applied to sexuality from having been among humans so long than he'd have felt when he first became human, and certainly being sexually molested held its own horrors and humiliations for him after what he'd learned from the incident with Amy Frasier, but he didn't have thousands of years of being afraid of physical rape.

Mental rape, the mind and self being invaded against one's will, was what the Q considered rape, with anything anyone could do to his body only the palest shadow. And if he was right, then T'Laren didn't just need to use his body. She needed to invade his mind.

No. He couldn't do it. Maybe if he hadn't been attacked by tr'Sahlassiu and if T'Laren was obviously in her right mind, in control of herself, able to take things slow and pull back if he needed her to and leave the parts of him he really wanted to keep private alone. Maybe he'd have been able to bring himself to do it then. But the point was moot. T'Laren was totally out of control, and wanted to merge that raging force of id, that consuming madness, with his mind, take his rationality from him and infect him with her diseased mind. What tr'Sahlassiu had done to him had been terrible, but by Q standards what T'Laren wanted from him, needed from him, was actually worse.

In the Continuum most pleasures, and most intimacies, were shared by joining energies, touching minds together in whatever level of depth and intensity the two or more Q engaged in it should desire. The deepest, most profound intimacy was the total joining of two minds. It was also the deepest, most profound horror, because children devoured each other that way and it ran the terrible risk of destroying the two separate entities involved, creating a new being with the strongest traits of both. Generally speaking, any Q who could possibly find such a fate attractive met it very young, but most Q did, sooner or later, engage in the total joining with another Q as an act of love and trust, both parties relying on their own and the other's strength of will and ego to be able to disengage again.

A life history of millions of years meant that there were very few things that the Q were capable of that Q himself had not engaged in at least a few times, but he had always been very reluctant to engage in a deep joining. He'd done it occasionally, of course, but not in a very, very long time… in fact, now that he thought about it, he realized that while he'd always been reluctant to engage in deep joining, he'd completely stopped after five older Q had jumped him, forced a joining on him with all of them, and used his mental defenselessness after they'd invaded him completely to try to rewrite him into someone else, and he'd felt what they felt and known what they'd known and seen every operation they planned to perform, every change they were sketching out in pencil on his consciousness before they committed it to ink, and they had penetrated and controlled him so completely that he couldn't even scream. Funny, that. After Queria had saved him, and his assailants had been banished from the Continuum, he'd thought the whole thing was over with and he would never be bothered by it again. It had never occurred to him while he was still a Q, and in fact it probably couldn't possibly have occurred to him before he did therapy with T'Laren, that there was in fact a direct causal connection between the attack he'd suffered fifty thousand years ago and the utter shallowness of his romantic/friendly relations with other Q for his entire adult life.

In the Continuum, Q had been an expert on giving other Q pleasure, making them lose control, yield all their defenses to him, while giving very, very little ground himself. He'd been very good at losing control in a completely controlled way, channeling all the pleasure they could make him feel back at them in a feedback loop, letting his surface thoughts be completely swept away by sublime ecstasies while keeping his deeper places private and untouched. He had not been good at all at true intimacy, and in fact one of the reasons he'd learned to be so good at overwhelming other Q with pleasure was that when other Q were utterly lost in pleasure, completely in your power, they couldn't muster up the concentration to try to penetrate you more deeply or even complain about the fact that you still had shields up inside. The other Q, not being exactly stupid, knew precisely what he was up to – though most likely few of them had ever bothered to think about why either; the Q simply did not think in terms of past trauma affecting individuals' behavior in the present, given how untraumatic most of their lives had been. They had just always assumed he had no interest in deep intimacy with them… which, he suspected now, was one of the reasons he was here today. A Q who could only join fully with the entire Continuum at once, and only at the moments when they were entirely the overmind, wasn't nearly as continuous as the Q who could freely share most of themselves most of the time with most of the others. He certainly had broken rules, flouted authority and even committed crimes, but if there were any Q who considered him an intimate friend, he'd probably have gotten probation or a less serious exile, with powers. Funny when you put it that way. He'd been condemned to humanity for being too shallow, too focused on pure pleasure, and not loving enough in bed, in human terms.

And when tr'Sahlassiu had mindmelded with him, the very first thing the Romulan had tried was a merging of minds, just like a Q joining, except with him as the obviously weaker and less powerful target, which made it a lot more like a devouring. Or a lot more like the attack the five older ones had perpetrated on him. And then when Q had fought that off, he'd been able to see in the other's mind that it had been intended to be exactly like the attack the five older ones had perpetrated on him… he hadn't thought about that at the time, hadn't articulated why this was so familiar and so completely terrifying, but tr'Sahlassiu had wanted to merge minds with him and then use his own position as the telepathically stronger one to rewrite Q's personality and perceptions, make him into a person who would welcome repeated future violations so tr'Sahlassiu could steal every last drop of his vast knowledge. Q had fought back against that, kept his ego separate from tr'Sahlassiu's and forced the man to go after his knowledge directly… but that had been fighting back against a combat telepath who meant him nothing but harm.

T'Laren wasn't after his memories or his knowledge. If she needed a mindmeld, what she needed was him. His self, his emotions, his consciousness. He wouldn't be able to keep his ego separate. Giving himself over to her would involve being intimate with another mind in a way he hadn't surrendered to since he'd been forced to by the Q who had attacked him. And to be perfectly honest, it wasn't something he'd ever liked doing. Oh, it wasn't that it hadn't been enjoyable; the Q were evolved to like joining with each other for similar reasons to why humans had evolved to like sex. The Continuum overmind wasn't possible without the Q naturally seeking connections with one another. But it had been terrifying before it had been used as a weapon against him.

It was out of the question. There was absolutely no way he could do this. He'd rather be beaten to death. He might have contemplated surrendering to that if that was the issue; he wasn't overly attached to his life, especially not a life where he would most likely be sold into slavery or to enemies who wanted to execute him. But no matter what the Ferengi did to him or who they sold him to, his mind would remain his own, untouched. That wouldn't be true if he went to T'Laren.

His breathing grew ragged. If he didn't go to her, she would die. Horribly. After being gang-raped, since he had no power to stop the Ferengi from carrying through Yalit's threat if he didn't provide her with the entertainment she was obviously expecting, and T'Laren would be in no shape to defend herself. He couldn't let that happen. But there didn't seem to be any way to avoid it aside from the thing he couldn't bring himself to do. He couldn't give T'Laren a mercy killing – Yalit wasn't going to be stupid enough to take any of his advice on transwarp until the situation with T'Laren was resolved. Which, according to T'Laren, it would be in three days. Why hadn't he seen it? She hadn't said "I'll be better in three days", she'd said "I'll be no threat to you in three days." Meaning she'd be dead. And there was no way he could get the ship blown up before then. There was no way he could physically put her out of her misery – if he went anywhere near her she'd take what she needed from him. He couldn't heal her, he couldn't cure her, he couldn't singlehandedly overpower the Ferengi and get her medical help. He probably couldn't get the Ferengi to find some random human man who wouldn't have a problem with mindmelds to help her out.

There was no other way.

But he couldn't. He couldn't possibly. If it had been a Q who needed him to join with her or die, he still couldn't have done it.

And then he stopped breathing, his throat closing and his lungs paralyzed as if he'd been kicked in the solar plexus, as he realized… he hadn't done it when a Q he'd loved had needed him to, to save her life. He had shut Azi out for how many millennia? And worse, he hadn't let her get what she needed from other Q either, driving off anyone else willing to join fully with her, because he obviously knew better what was good for her than she did and he couldn't imagine that she knew what she was doing and could handle the danger and he couldn't face his dearest friend, practically the only being in the universe who he actually felt protective toward, willingly subjecting herself to his greatest fear. He had had millions of opportunities to give her what she'd needed, or let her get it somewhere else, and he'd been too afraid, and he'd convinced himself he was doing it for her sake and he knew best, and he'd driven her to insanity. Of course she had attacked him. He had thought that at least he'd been justified in the things he'd done that she'd tried to kill him for, that his only crime in the whole sordid mess had been what he'd done when she had driven him to insanity with her attack and its aftermath, but no. No. It was his fault from the beginning.

Q forced himself to start breathing normally again. He was not going to break down and cry in front of the Ferengi's monitors.

It had been easy enough to offer himself up to the Calamarain – he'd known that if he hadn't done it he would eventually die anyway, and drag the Enterprise and possibly the entire world of Bre'el IV down with him. It had been easy enough to give himself up to the Borg – he had known for an absolute certainty that the Continuum would never let him be assimilated, so even if the Borg had disabled whatever suicide capsule he used to kill himself, the Continuum would have made sure he died first. If they had been less concerned than he was about his knowledge being used to empower the Borg over the other species in the galaxy, they would at least be worried about his knowledge of the weaknesses of the Q falling into Borg hands. So the only thing he'd risked was his mortal life, which would have ended anyway if the Borg had destroyed Starbase 56. All the times he'd risked his life or contemplated self-sacrifice, it had always been only his life at stake, and after becoming mortal it wasn't as if his life was really all that valuable anymore, and often the situation was one that would kill him anyway if no one else stepped in to save the day.

Yielding his mind… was different. It was a sacrifice he could have made when he was still Q, when the life and sanity of the Q he most loved had been on the line, and despite his countless opportunities he never had. It wasn't inevitable, unlike death as a mortal. It would make him vulnerable to the thing he most feared, the thing he had feared for millennia, the thing he'd feared even when he'd been immortal, omnipotent, virtually invulnerable and fearless.

And if he didn't do it, the only person who had showed him any genuine compassion since Data had saved his life on the Enterprise would die a hideous, degrading death.

There really wasn't a choice here, was there?

Almost mechanically, barely aware of the motions he was making, he got up and walked to the closet door. His heart was pounding so hard he felt as if it might break his ribs open and fall out, and his vision had tunneled and he wasn't exactly looking at anything anyway, finding his way to the door more by muscle memory than by paying any attention to the world outside the screaming terror in his head. His stomach had clenched so hard he might have thrown up if he weren't almost completely detached from his own body and its sensations, like he was still a Q and the mortal avatar was a puppet he was manipulating from a distance rather than actually him now.

This was like the kind of nightmare where part of your mind knew exactly what horror awaited you if you did that thing, and you were screaming at yourself not to do it, but the part of your mind that controlled your dream-body was completely oblivious and just went ahead and did whatever it was, Q thought. Except that the part of his mind screaming was being overridden by the part of him that had a conscience. How strange. Before he became mortal, if anyone had actually asked him if he'd had a conscience he would have laughed. Who knew?

He pressed the button and the door opened.

T'Laren threw herself on him, knocking him to the floor, before he really had a chance to even see her. Q screamed – he'd been braced for something, but having someone jump on him and bear him down to the floor was still shocking. She was completely naked, writhing against him, and her hands reached up for his face, her fingers reaching to his temples and forehead. He tried to bat her hand away, but it did him no good; as he pushed her hands away from his face she lowered her head to his and kissed him, and he was too startled to try to twist away. Her lips on his sent tingles through his body like random, tiny shocks of pleasure all throughout him, and then he felt the same cold fire burning that he'd felt when tr'Sahlassiu was attacking him. The sensation wasn't localized anywhere in his skin; it seemed to be coming from within his mind, like the sensation of swooning or becoming dizzy did.

When tr'Sahlassiu had attacked him his body had fallen away, and he'd lost any sense of it. That didn't happen now. As he felt T'Laren's presence pressing against his mind, he became hyper-aware of his own body and of hers, her skin fiery against his, every place that her body pressed against his burning with both real and metaphorical heat. T'Laren's skin had always been warmer than his own, as if she had a fever, but now she was so hot touching her would be uncomfortable if she weren't pure sex. This was like the disturbing dreams he'd had aboard Yamato, where he was essentially paralyzed, pinned down and helpless and T'Laren was touching him and all he could feel was pleasure, drowning him. Her hands, instead of trying to touch his face anymore, were tugging at his shirt, hard enough that the collar was digging into the skin at the back of his neck and it might have hurt if there weren't so many other sensations pouring through him. Q moaned, involuntarily pressing his hips up against her, and she pushed into his mind, a swirling almost mindless morass of arousal and need, and he felt his sense of himself slipping under the assault and he screamed again, trying to struggle, trying to shield himself against her, but the needs of his body flooding through him made it impossible to concentrate and he couldn't pull up his shields and he was losing himself and the old terror surged, memory of other Q inside him taking his self away and making him someone else. The fear took him completely, and he screamed and screamed, unable to stop the invasion of his mind in any way and equally unable to stop being terrified of it.

And then T'Laren's presence was gone, along with the hyperawareness of both their bodies' surfaces that had completely confused his proprioception and made him lose his sense of which body was his. He was himself, alone, lying on the floor and T'Laren had backed away, was kneeling on the floor half a meter away from him, crawling backward.

He sat up. She was crying, silently, her face twisted with pain, her cheeks wet and her eyes spilling over with tears. "I… will not… harm you," she whispered, the words slow and hoarse and sounding as if she was dragging them up and out against some kind of impossible gravity. "Lock… me… away…"

Q stood up. He was shaking, but it wasn't all fear. The sensations she'd awakened in his body hadn't simply gone away when her mind had; he was so hard it hurt and his skin so sensitive, so needy, that his own shirt brushing against his nipples and stomach made him want to breathe heavily with reaction. He looked down at T'Laren, and his heart turned over in his chest. Having shared her mind for just the briefest of moments made him want sex more badly than he'd ever had in his human life, including when Amy Frasier had been actively fondling his genitals and hadn't yet told him that he was just a particularly exotic notch on her belt. He knew how hard it was for her to back away, to stay away from him; he knew how desperately she wanted, needed him. But she had pulled herself away because he'd been terrified and she didn't want him to suffer. She was dying, but she still refused to simply take what she needed at his expense.

If it weren't for the fact that he was fairly certain he was incapable of the emotion, at least as humans understood it, he might have thought he loved her then.

He swallowed. "No, T'Laren. I'm not going to lock you up."

A sob broke in her voice. "Please… lock me… away… I… I will not… I will not harm you.."

"It's… it's all right, T'Laren. I know what I'm doing." His mouth was completely dry. Q swallowed again, and still couldn't get rid of the hoarseness in his own voice. "You… you can have what you need. It's all right. I'm… willing." For moderate and completely confused values of willing, anyway. His body wanted her more than he'd imagined possible, and he was still terrified of losing his self in her, and he was overwhelmed with fierce and tender protectiveness toward her, that she could actually overcome her need long enough to think of his fears. Q backed away from her toward the door of the bedroom, and then at the look of utter confusion on her face, he undid the fasteners on his shirt and pulled it off. Her eyes fixed on him hungrily, desperately, and the look was as terrifying and arousing as everything else that had happened since he opened the door. In his entire human existence, no one had looked at him like that; no one had wanted him like that, even when he'd been attractive from much more recent godhood. The back of his neck actually hurt quite a bit where her yanking on his shirt had dug into his skin, and the cool air of the room on his hungry skin made him shudder. "I'd rather we did this in a bed than on the floor, don't you think? I mean, traditionally, that is where such things are done, aren't they?"

She got to her feet slowly, looking at him as if he were a mirage she expected to pop any minute. "You… you fear this," she whispered.

"Yeah." Damn this dry mouth anyway. He wondered if he had a chance to get a glass of water before she jumped him again. "Yeah, I… I'm not particularly fond of mind melds, you know that. But Yalit explained what's going on. You need me, or you'll die. So…" he shrugged, trying to pretend to be nonchalant and well aware he was failing utterly, "here I am. Come and get some."

She followed him, her eyes fixed on him as if she were completely mesmerized by him. He didn't dare turn around, afraid she'd lunge at him once his back was turned. Q backed into the bedroom – where there probably were still monitors, he knew, but at least he could lock the door so they couldn't physically get in – and up to the bed.

Even with her hair wild and mussed like the worst bed head ever and her eyes bright green and bloodshot, T'Laren was beautiful. Aesthetically, she was form and grace and power, the energy coiled in her graceful movements reminiscent of a giant cat, padding toward its prey. In senses rather more visceral than pure aesthetic appreciation, her tan skin was sheened with sweat, glistening, and her breasts were firm and round and perfect, brown nipples hard against greenish-brown areolae, and her legs and hips brought images to his mind that any other day he would have declared disgusting and castigated himself for even being able to think of, but right now it was his body that wanted to do the right thing and his mind that was cringing away in terror, and if he could shut his own terror out for a moment by thinking of what he hoped her body might feel like against his, he'd get through this a lot easier. His pants were painfully tight. Q undid the somewhat complicated fastenings that held them on, and let them drop to the floor. To be honest his underwear was painfully tight too, but he simply couldn't bring himself to just take them off in front of another person, particularly not when he was so very hard, although at the moment it wasn't exactly as if T'Laren would laugh at him for having an erection.

She came toward him. Q sat down on the bed. "It's all right, T'Laren," he said again. "I'll do whatever you need me to do. I'm not going to let you die."

"I… don't want… to hurt… you…"

"I'd rather you didn't hurt me either, but you know, we can't always get what we want. You need this, you'll die without it… fine, I'm offering."

And then she was reaching to touch his face again. Q trembled, but didn't try to push her away. This time he was better prepared. He'd made the decision to offer himself up before but he hadn't known what it would feel like, and she'd moved so fast, so brutally, he hadn't had time to emotionally accept what intellectually he'd already decided to endure. He was ready now, or as ready as anyone ever got to face the thing they were most afraid of in the entire universe.

The cold fire washed over him again, and with it, his sense of her mind and her body and her overwhelming need, making him want as badly as she did. He pulled her down onto the bed next to him, and her mind poured into him, entering him and mingling with his mind, and the physical desire and the power of her mind swamped his consciousness again. He was going down, losing himself, and there was utter terror and there was overwhelming desire and then he was not.

Their lips met again, this time with all the fervor and passion and experience of T'Laren's extensive sexual history. Their hands worked together to remove his briefs, their hands roaming over their bodies to soothe the burning need to be touched, feed the skin hunger and send waves of pleasure through their bodies. Then they had his body as naked as they needed it to be, and they locked themselves together, him penetrating her, her engulfing him, and it was so good their shared mind orgasmed then and there, shuddering through pleasure more intense than they could recall from either of their sets of memories.

But the need was still there, unquenched by a single orgasm. They didn't separate. They lay together, still one inside the other, and kissed and stroked each other's bodies for the few minutes it took before his body could respond to the need they both still felt. And then they were moving together, hard and fierce and passionate. Their hands and mouths found the sensitive places on their bodies and caressed or licked or sucked on them, heightening the sensations. They touched her clitoris, stroking it gently, because it was very sore, but the sensations were too maddening for them to bear and they had to use a firmer, more rhythmic touch, ignoring the soreness they could still feel echoes of in favor of the need burning through both their bodies. They sucked their nipples and kissed their necks and lips and squeezed their buttocks and their breasts and pounded their hips against each other, one entity in two bodies and both bodies utterly overwhelmed with desire, need and pleasure.

When climax finally came, it was deep, all-consuming, convulsing every muscle in both their bodies with ecstasy. It went on and on, impossible tension coiling even tighter, and tighter, and then finally releasing in a paroxysm of sweet pleasure. For the first time in days, the body that was T'Laren's felt relief, a release of the terrible energy consuming her, and her mind fell out of their joining into the delicious darkness of sleep, leaving Q's mind his own again, semiconscious and more than a little dazed by what had just happened.

For several minutes he lay next to T'Laren's sweat-drenched body, boneless, mind drifting, slowly remembering who and where he was. And then he laughed in delight, rolling over to curl against T'Laren's body, pressing his skin against hers again as sweet waves of afterglow lapped over him slowly.

He'd done it. Not just the aspect of finally experiencing mortal sex, and finding that he wished he hadn't wasted three years trying to avoid it, but he had lost himself completely in someone else, merging minds so completely that he'd had no separate consciousness anymore… and he'd come back out of it intact, without even having had to struggle or work to separate as two Q would have had to. He was safely anchored in mortal flesh, something he'd never thought of as a positive attribute until now; he could join completely and totally with another mind, become part of a gestalt sharing a single consciousness, and then return to being his own self without any risk of being changed or devoured. Mortals, or at least mortals engaged in a Vulcan mind meld, couldn't lose themselves that way. Sooner or later, the power that made the connection would fail, because Vulcans were mortal and had finite energy, and when their telepathy shut down the two minds would naturally separate again.

As a mortal, he could have the deepest, most dangerous pleasure a Q could experience without any threat to his identity or integrity whatsoever. He laughed harder, and hoped the Continuum was reading his mind right now, because he really wanted them to bite down on that fact like it was a particularly sour lemon and suck. The punishment they'd inflicted on him, almost uniformly horrible up until now, had freed him to have the one thing he hadn't dared to have when he was all-powerful. Not that the freedom to merge minds actually made up for the loss of his powers, but it was a completely unexpected side benefit that provided the first modicum of compensation for his loss he'd encountered in three years.

It felt so good to lay here pressed up against her – even though he normally wasn't particularly fond of physical contact unless it was a backrub, the pleasure he felt now from simply having his skin against another mortal's warmth was sweeter than anything he'd experienced in his mortal life… well, aside from the mind-bogglingly intense orgasms he'd just had, but it was a lot easier to think through this kind of pleasure. Orgasms were like backrubs; both were deliciously pleasurable but derived most of their pleasure from the release of tension and need. This simple contact was a much purer pleasure, not dependent on any kind of need for its sweetness, just wonderful in and of itself. He felt totally relaxed, barely able to move and completely unconcerned with it.

For a short while he drifted off to sleep; he'd also had a sleepless night. But when he felt a hand moving on him, running along his side, it woke him easily and without fear or exhaustion; he could feel her sense of presence, a connection in his mind where there hadn't been one before, and he knew even before he was awake exactly who was touching him and exactly what she intended. Apparently the pon farr wasn't usually satisfied by a single mating; she would continue to become aroused very, very easily and need frequent sexual release for some time. The thought made his groin stir. He'd slept long enough for the human male refractory period to end, and if T'Laren's arousal spilling through the link hadn't been enough to stimulate him, the memory of the pleasure they'd experienced this morning might have been enough to make him harden again all by itself. Really, why had he avoided this for three years? It was infinitely better than masturbation had ever been; the feeling that there was actually someone else there who cared about making one feel good made everything seem much less shameful and debauched. He wasn't a complete loser for fantasizing about imaginary sex with people who didn't in reality give a damn about him, he was actually with someone who wanted him. Wanted him. It had been so very long since he'd felt that anyone wanted him. Elejani Baíi had been offering him charity based on her feelings of gratitude, and Harry… Harry flirted with every tall smart humanoid man he met, which on a starbase dedicated to scientific pursuits was a significant part of the population. It was a bit flattering, but Q had hardly felt special being the object of Harry's attentions. But at least right now, in this time and place, T'Laren wanted him, specifically.

And he wanted her, he admitted to himself. He had for some time. He'd told himself it was some passing whim of his body's the way most of the physical attractions he felt were, but if it had only been his body that had wanted her, he wouldn't have felt compelled to fantasize about her being with him the last time he'd masturbated, when he'd had that dream and then found her in skimpy exercise clothes. He himself, his mind, had wanted her.

She reached for his temple, but he caught her hand and moved it away. "Not like that, this time," he said. "Let's do this as ourselves, this time. You can handle that, can't you?"

T'Laren nodded, and he sensed her assent through the link they still shared. He didn't mind having a link; it made the whole thing rather more like the pleasures the Q shared, and he was interested in seeing how much of his previous experience could apply here. He just didn't want to join minds fully again. That had been… intense. After he'd been so terrified of it, he was still somewhat stunned at how good it had felt and how easy it had been to separate again, but it was too much to do again so soon. Apparently his brain had a longer refractory period than his penis did.

She reached out to his chest instead of his face and trailed her fingers down his body, stroking down to his inner thigh and then over to his groin. Q moaned, for a moment completely lost in the sensations, before he remembered that he'd actually wanted to have more control over things this time around. Part of him was insisting that he should just lay here and let her do as she wished with him; if he was passive then he didn't have any responsibility if things didn't go well, and he didn't have to do any work, and all he had to do was surrender to pleasure, which, he had to admit, was affecting him a lot more thoroughly than it ever had when he was a Q. He couldn't remember what the pleasures of being a Q had felt like, exactly, but he was pretty sure they were much more intense than this; still, a Q also had a much larger and more easily divisible consciousness than a human did, so even vastly more pleasurable sensations than a human body could bear couldn't fill up a Q's mind and crowd everything else out as easily as T'Laren's hands on him were doing to his human psyche. He had always done this kind of thing to other Q; no Q had ever been able to get him as thoroughly helpless and enthralled in pleasure as T'Laren was doing, mainly because he'd been a lot better at resisting it when he was a Q.

But he wanted to take a more active role, for much the same reasons as he'd always taken a more active role with other Q. So he sat up, shifting his body slightly so T'Laren couldn't easily reach his groin. She moved to his back and chest, running her hands all over his body, which was still very nice but not quite as derailing to his train of thought. Tentatively Q reached out for her breast, hazy memories of their joining earlier telling him that she would respond to almost anything he did to it. She sighed when he cupped it and moaned when he squeezed it gently, and then he remembered that she was a mammal and wired to want the nipples sucked, so he leaned down and tried that. That made her scream and arch her back, hands grabbing him and pulling him close.

This could be remarkably entertaining. In theory he should be able to get the upper hand here even though she was physically stronger, a telepath and had a lot more experience with this messy mortal form of exchanging pleasure than he did; she was also hypersensitive and had been suffering uncontrollable lust for days, and as long as he could keep her from actually merging minds with him he could avoid most of the desperate desire she was suffering from, which meant, in theory, he could keep his rationality and drive her absolutely mad with pleasure. Well, given that frustrated lust had in fact driven her nearly mad, maybe that was a bad metaphor, but the point was she was biologically programmed to totally lose her rationality to her sensations right now, and he wasn't. If he could remember enough of the confused, jumbled and indistinct memories of what they'd done to each other before when their minds had been united to figure out what she would especially like, he could have her in his power, and that was a very enticing idea. T'Laren had had enormous power over him since they'd met, and any mortal who'd lived to adulthood in a mortal body had seemed to have power over him and his ignorance of the human condition, his entire human life, and sex in particular seemed very much a weapon other people might try to wield against him. The idea that he could actually do, as a mortal, what he'd have done to a lover when he was a Q, and control their responses, make them lose themselves in what he did to them, was exciting, and seemed a lot more interesting than simply lying back and letting T'Laren pleasure him, as much fun as that had seemed at the time.

His motions, his actions, were far from sure or practiced. It took a lot of concentration to remember what he should do, the things that she'd especially liked when they'd been one, and the things she was doing to his body in return didn't improve his ability to concentrate any. But fundamentally T'Laren seemed to want to lose herself in pleasure, and he didn't, and that made a good bit of difference. T'Laren seemed to have completely lost the ability to speak for the moment, but every so often he would get a powerful visual or tactile image through their link, something she wanted very much, and he would do his best to give it to her. Except for entering her. He held off on that, although the images coming through the link were demanding it more and more, because as soon as he did that he'd lose most of his ability to focus on her needs. Instead, he used the link against her, feeding the sensations she was giving him right back at her, teasing her body and her mind at the same time.

And then as he was sucking one of her nipples again and rubbing her clitoris with two fingertips, following the guidelines her sensations through the link were giving him, her pleasure suddenly spiked and she convulsed around him, grabbing his hand and using it to pull herself halfway up. The sight of her face and body when she was lost in sensation, when orgasm rippled through her, was both deeply gratifying and incredibly arousing. Who would have thought he, of all people, could make a mortal feel so good? He didn't know what he was doing, he wasn't well coordinated, he had never been good at any other mortal cooperative activity… but a mindlink helped, a lot.

As her pleasure surged through her, his own need broke free of his control, which to be honest hadn't been all that good in the first place and he'd never had held off so long if he hadn't needed to feel like he was in charge even more than he needed to feel her warmth around him. He wanted to be inside her, desperately, and she picked up his need through the link and transmitted enthusiastic, even frantic, consent. Yes. As much as he wanted to be in her now, her need to have him there was even more intense. He slid onto her, and she opened her legs widely, tilting herself up to try to meet him. There was a bit of fumbling – his memory of exactly how they'd done this the last time was pretty vague – and then he was inside her, thrusting, and she convulsed again, his presence inside her apparently extending her orgasmic plateau or possibly even giving her multiple orgasms. He wasn't sure, and he didn't quite care anymore, his mind entirely occupied with how good she felt around him and her hands on his back and her lips under his and she was so tight and wet and then any semblance of rational thought fell apart, his mind melting in a sweet wash of pleasure.

Exhaustion hit him as soon as the tension released by his orgasm finished ebbing away. He might not have gone without sleep as long as T'Laren had, but he'd had a pain-wracked night of getting drunk to ease the torture he'd suffered and having it help get him to sleep but not keep him there, and then last night where he hadn't slept at all. Q was awfully tired, and the whiplash of terror followed by intense pleasure had drained him as much as the sex itself had. He rolled off her and curled up next to her, enjoying the feel of her skin against his in the afterglow again, and fell asleep.

At some point, long before he actually wanted to wake up, he felt her hands on him again. This time, although the sensations were pleasurable in themselves, it was annoying him more than anything else. What he really needed right now was sleep. Q tried to push T'Laren's hands away. "Go 'way. Wanna sleep."

Her mind pressed against his again, cold fire pushing at his brain and behind it a considerably hotter flame. She still needed, she still hungered badly enough that it maddened her. Their last coupling had given her relief for several hours, but the need was back again.

Mentally Q pushed her back, an especially tiring thing to do when he was so sleepy. "Later," Q mumbled. "I really need sleep." His voice was slow and slurred with his exhaustion.

And then he felt her mouth on him, kissing and licking her way across his skin, nibbling at his neck. He tried to slap her away, but she only moved, sliding lower on his body. Despite himself Q was waking up; it was impossible to stay asleep when someone's tongue was drawing circles on your abdomen. "Do you ever get enough?" he asked, still blearily.

And then her mouth was on his penis, and he forgot that he would rather be sleeping. This time Q was much too tired to try to take control; he really did simply lay there and let T'Laren did what she willed with him. Part of him thought that he should probably be disgusted, because the thought of mouth to genital contact was nauseating when you considered what else the genitals were used for, but he was worn out emotionally as much as physically and he really couldn't muster up any sort of outrage about anything that felt this good. As long as she didn't expect him to reciprocate. It was her mouth; if she wanted to put filthy things in it that was her lookout.

After everything that had gone before, he felt almost no sense of urgency at all. It took a long time before T'Laren could get him hard again, although the sensations of her mouth and tongue on him and around him and her hands stroking his inner thighs and testicles were wonderful. Q let himself drift on waves of pleasure, not quite falling asleep but not entirely conscious through all of it either. Eventually T'Laren had him as hard as she apparently needed him, and she climbed on top of him and rode him hard, her intensity a bizarre contrast to the lassitude he felt. It wasn't entirely comfortable; her warmth around him still felt good, but to be honest her hips slamming into his were starting to hurt a bit. He was also starting to feel somewhat used, as if he was nothing to her but a particularly lifelike dildo. It probably wasn't fair, because he had promised to give her whatever she needed, and obviously she needed this, but he wasn't participating and he was starting to not even particularly like this and she didn't seem to care.

Experimentally he reached out and rubbed her clitoris with his thumb, both to help her come faster so she could end this, and because if he actually roused himself enough to do something he felt less used. The response was gratifying, although a little bit painful - she moaned and moved more frantically, driving herself onto him deeper and pressing into his thumb at the same time. The pounding of her groin against his had graduated to actual pain in his hips and back, but the sight and sound of her so completely lost in the pleasure he was giving her was arousing, re-awakening his interest in the proceedings, and his own desire rising made the pain fade back into the background, almost invisible again. T'Laren's mind reached out to his, and he was both too worn out and too aroused to resist her. Her self slid into his, overlapping, not fully merging this time, and her heat and her need overwhelmed him. Instinctively he responded, rubbing her harder, faster, his hips moving in time with hers now, his exhaustion forgotten.

Then she fell over the edge, any coherent thought in her mind dissolving in a burst of pleasure, though to be honest there hadn't been much in the way of coherent thought there before. The sensations she was feeling combined with how her muscles tightening around him made him feel, and seconds later he joined her, release sweeping over him.

Q became aware that he must have fallen asleep when he felt her hands moving on him again, and he felt cold and leaden. He couldn't remember what had happened after he came; probably he'd been so exhausted that he'd simply passed out immediately. He desperately wanted to get back to sleep, preferably after wrapping warm blankets around himself, but T'Laren was touching him again and he could feel her need through the link again.

"No," he mumbled, and tried feebly to push her hand away from his groin. He ached, and he was so very, very tired, and he was starting to feel a little bit raw. Her hands were only irritating him. "Too tired. Lemme sleep."

She ignored him. He pushed at her harder, and she changed tactics, using her mouth on him again. This time he was so tired he couldn't respond with pleasure; simply being awake was making his head hurt, and he was oversensitive between his legs, and even her mouth was irritating. Q pushed at her head again. "Stop it… I'm tired. I wanna sleep." His voice sounded whiny even to him, but he was too tired to care; all he cared about was returning to sweet oblivion, and T'Laren wasn't letting him doing it.

She wouldn't stop touching him. He could feel her need, but he was too tired to care. He had to sleep, felt like every moment he spent awake was burning his brain somehow. And her hands and mouth on him couldn't draw any kind of response out of him; he was used up completely. His penis didn't even stir under her caresses. It wasn't that he couldn't feel it; he could, but what had felt wonderfully pleasant earlier just grated on him now, not exactly painful but not really comfortable either and certainly not pleasurable.

He felt her frustration through the link, and for a moment he was pleased. She understood that he wouldn't be able to respond until he'd gotten some sleep. He was sure of it. She'd leave him alone now.

And then her hands moved to his temple, and Q was so sluggish with exhaustion it took him moments to react, moments to realize what she was doing. Cold fire pressed against his mind again, and it finally sank in what she was doing. In sudden horror, Q tried to shield himself, tried to force her back out, but his exhaustion made him slow and weak and she simply overwhelmed his defenses, and then her mind was in his and he stopped being.

The unity of their minds was considerably less pleased this time. T'Laren's frustration and rage at being denied what she needed, the enormity of the need she still felt even after multiple sex acts, Q's horror at losing his mind again, boiled through both of them. But T'Laren's mind was dominant now, Q's mind too exhausted to put up any real resistance, and it was her need that drove their actions. They tried to arouse his body to hardness again, but despite the awful need they both felt, his body was simply done, far too worn out from far too many orgasms to become erect at all. So they used his mouth and fingers on her clitoris and vagina, and when what was left of his consciousness cried out in disgust and tried to pull away from the meld again, they used the raw force of T'Laren's telepathy and the intensity of her need to dominate that part of them, drowning the fragment of his identity in their shared self and shared need. Sweet pleasure washed through them as they used his body to satisfy hers, making his mouth suck hard on her hard little nub, his fingers drive into her wetness over and over until finally, at long last, her orgasm shuddered through their shared consciousness.

And in that moment, Q got free, mind and body his own once more, and crawled away from T'Laren as far as he could get on the bed, shivering. He was cold, and he was so tired he wanted to die, and he didn't want T'Laren anywhere near him. She had fallen asleep again, curled up on the bed, and he wanted so badly to be asleep too, but he had to protect himself. In his bleary, exhausted state, it didn't occur to him that if T'Laren woke up she could just crawl to the other side of the bed to get at him; he just wanted to be somewhere she couldn't reach out and touch him right now. He felt sick, and betrayed, and used; he was shaking in the aftermath of an orgasm that he hadn't actually had, his body hurt ferociously, the taste in his mouth was nauseating him, and he thought maybe he should go to the bathroom because he might throw up, but he was too tired to get off the bed. T'Laren was laying on top of the sheets, so he crawled under them, as far as he could go from her without falling off the bed, and pulled them over his head. He yanked a pillow down into his blanket fortress to lay his head on, and another to hug against his body as if curling in a fetal ball around a pillow could actually protect him from anything at all, and pulled the blankets as tightly around him as he could. If he'd been more conscious he'd have realized that the security he felt was a complete illusion, but he only needed enough to convince his half-asleep mind that he was safe enough to yield to sleep, and as soon as he had that much safety the darkness rose up out of the pillow and into his head and washed him away.

T'Laren awakened, again, when the desire became too intrusive to stay confined to erotic dreams. By instinct she reached out for Q, but he wasn't there. Reflexively she reached her mind toward him instead, and hit a wall. Q was fully shielded against her.

This was unusual enough to wake her completely. She sat up, and saw him on the other side of the bed, or something that was probably him anyway because he was completely covered by blankets. T'Laren crawled over to him and pulled back the blanket slightly, until she could see his head and part of his arms, which were wrapped tightly around a pillow. His face was as tense and drawn as it had been the day she came in on him after he'd taken sedatives. T'Laren frowned, not quite able to match up his mental shield and obvious tension to what she remembered of the night. She started to reach toward him—

-and memory flooded back in of the last encounter they'd had. T'Laren recoiled back on the bed, rocking back on her heels, in sudden horror, as she remembered what she'd done.

She had wanted him so badly. Even after they'd been together three times, the need had still throbbed within her. But Q hadn't responded; he'd kept trying to push her away, telling her to stop. Now that she'd finally satisfied enough of the need to be more or less in her right mind, T'Laren cringed, remembering, because she hadn't stopped. She had kept touching him, trying to arouse him, and when he didn't respond at all, she had thought that a full mind meld, a total joining of their minds, would enable Q to feel enough of her desire that he would want it too.

She remembered Q's sudden terror as she felt him realize what she intended, remembered him trying to throw up mental shields in a sudden panic, but although he had actually turned out to be remarkably adept with his mind when he was wide awake, in his exhausted state he'd been no match for her. She'd forced a joining of minds on him, and drowned out any resistance with her need. And when his body still couldn't respond – apparently human men simply didn't physically have the stamina Vulcans did, which she supposed shouldn't have surprised her – she had taken what she needed from him a different way, directing their joined mind so that Q would perform oral sex on her and use his fingers inside her. Q had tried to resist again, the part of their joined self that was his mind reacting with utter disgust to the thought of putting his mouth anywhere near anyone's genitals, but she'd needed him and he couldn't give it to her the other way so she'd overridden him. Instead of a perfect melding of minds, their joining had been more T'Laren controlling Q's mind, and through his mind his body, and neither Q's fear and disgust nor her own personal ethics had even raised a warning flag in her mind about it.

She had raped him. Both physically and mentally. He had consented to give her what she needed, she dimly remembered that, and he'd willingly joined with her and then willingly had sex with her three times, but the last time he hadn't consented – he had told her to stop, he had tried to push her away, he had tried to resist the mindmeld and he'd been horrified and disgusted at what she'd wanted him to do, so she'd mind-controlled him into doing it anyway.

She wrapped her arms around her breasts and crumpled in on herself, folding into as tight a ball as she could. Tears welled in her eyes, and a sob forced its way out of her throat, and there was no question of using discipline to control herself, not now. She didn't even deserve to be controlled. The thing she had most feared doing, the thing she had had Q lock her in a closet to prevent and had endured an eternity of agonizing need instead, and she had done it anyway. She remembered saying over and over "I will not harm you," a mantra that meant she refused to do it, the way "There is no pain" meant to a Vulcan "I won't let myself feel pain", but she hadn't even meant harm, generically. She'd meant she refused to rape him, though she hadn't been able to bring herself to use that word. And then she'd done it anyway.

T'Laren half-fell, half-laid herself down on the bed, still curled as tightly as she could, and sobbed brokenly. He should have let her die. But it wasn't his fault – he'd done the noble thing, the heroic thing, just as she'd thought he would if anyone actually told him what was at stake, which of course the Ferengi had, and she still wanted to kill them all for this. She should have found a way to kill herself so Q couldn't have let her out and she couldn't have raped him. She should have foreseen that the Ferengi would tell him; she had foreseen that if he'd known the truth he would sacrifice himself to her, to save her life, and she should have realized that the Ferengi wouldn't leave such a weakness unexploited. But it wasn't the Ferengi that had forced a mind-meld on him and drowned out the protestations and fears of his mind and used him for sexual gratification when he was too exhausted to get any pleasure from it himself. She had done that. Ultimately there was no one to blame but herself.

And the horrible thing was that, although her mind was her own again, the need still raged through her; it was weaker now, more the levels that had driven her to have sex with random human men that she found in bars on shore leave on various planets, because Soram wouldn't have sex with her at all outside his Time, rather than the level that had simply destroyed her will and rationality and ethics and left her barely conscious, a mindless bundle of nerves. It was weak enough that she could control herself now; she wasn't going to rape him again. But she still wanted him, and that was an awful thing to feel after what she'd done. How dare she still want him under these circumstances? How dare she remember the pleasure he'd given her before, and the wonderful release she had finally felt, when she'd obtained at least one of those releases against his will?

She cried, and cried, and wished she were dead, but Vulcans didn't actually really have the ability to stop their own hearts any more than Q really did. Dying, apparently, wasn't an option, now that Q had given her enough to keep the need from killing her. Sooner or later she was going to have to face him, when he woke up, but he would hate her and she would deserve it.

Q dearly wished he was not awake. Everything hurt, horribly. Unfortunately he needed to use the bathroom too badly to stay blissfully unconscious, and by the time he had staggered to the bathroom, dragging the blanket with him so he could at least avoid giving the Ferengi more of a free show than they'd already had, he was in far too much pain to be able to get back to sleep. His head pounded, he was so thirsty his tongue felt like cardboard, and although he dimly recalled having gone to the bathroom at some point during the earlier activities, his bladder still felt like it might burst.

That taken care of, he needed clothes. When he'd taken everything out of his closet to make room for T'Laren, he'd piled the clothes in the corner of his bedroom. He stumbled back into the bedroom from the bathroom and started rummaging through the pile, one-handed since he needed the other hand to hold up the blanket.

"Q," T'Laren said, her voice hoarse enough that it was almost a whisper. Q was startled; he hadn't actually heard her voice in quite some time. She was kneeling on the bed, naked, half-covered in another of the blankets. "I… I am deeply sorry… I know what I—"

"Shut up," Q said, more tiredly than irritably, though what he felt was mostly irritation. "I'm not interested in hearing it."

"I… I'm sorry…"

"And stop apologizing for apologizing. I know what you want to say and I don't care. I don't really want to hear it now. So shut up."

He found what he was looking for and dragged it to the bathroom with him. There honestly wasn't much point to this – if there were monitors in the bedroom, the Ferengi had seen pretty much everything there was to see, and besides, he'd walked around without his clothes on in the main room after the bugs incident – but he felt a profound need for sartorial armor at the moment. Especially because he looked like death only slightly warmed over. He took a shower, got dressed in one of his more formidable outfits, and took twenty minutes to apply makeup, and even then he thought he still looked awful. He'd fallen out of the habit of being able to put on an unassailable front when he was in considerable pain, since pain had stopped being his default state. Q tried a few poses in front of the mirror, putting on different expressions until he had one he thought hid his suffering reasonably well.

He didn't even go back in the bedroom, leaving the bathroom directly through the door to the main suite. There was food on the table – some sandwiches, two glasses of wine, candles that had obviously burned down, and a basket of heart-shaped cookies. Someone undoubtedly thought they were being hilarious. He took a small bite of all of the sandwiches, including the ones with no meat in them, to check for the grated aspirin taste, but it wasn't there anymore, nor was it in the cookies. Under the circumstances Q wasn't going to trust alcohol, or even synthehol, for any reason. He returned to the bathroom, dumped the wine in the sink, rinsed the glasses and filled them both with cold water. Then he stalked over to the bedroom and walked in.

T'Laren was curled up on the bed, crying softly. She looked up as he entered. "I don't know how long it is since you ate real food, but I checked the meal they left for you, and miraculously they don't appear to have poisoned it," he said shortly. "Get some clothes on and come eat something."

It had been something like 9 am when he'd left the suite yesterday, and he'd returned maybe an hour later. It was now 4 am, which was an utterly ridiculous time to have to be awake. How long had everything taken… yesterday, or earlier today, or whatever he was going to call it? He hadn't been checking the time. Right now he wasn't actually genuinely tired, per se; he ached horribly, he was extremely irritable, but he didn't feel any particular desire to go back to sleep, so eventually he must have gotten enough sleep. But that made it close to 20 hours since he'd last eaten, and before that, it had been a day and a half without food. He was starving, which probably wasn't helping his mood any. There were six sandwiches; Q devoured the three with meat, even though one was made with bologna and he hated bologna and there was mayonnaise, which he also hated, on all of them. He then ate half the cookies, and was eyeing one of T'Laren's less unpleasant tasting sandwiches when she came in.

She hadn't brushed her hair or washed her face, her eyes were bloodshot bright green and sat in sockets surrounded by greenish-yellow markings under her eyes, and the nightgown she was wearing looked as rumpled as if it had been sitting in a suitcase for days, which of course it had been. She walked stiffly, and her face had no expression as she made her way to the table without ever actually looking at him.

Q got up. He was done with his food, and he didn't feel like sitting with T'Laren right now. "After you eat, take a shower. You look like targ feces." He returned to the bedroom because there was nowhere in the main suite to go to avoid T'Laren if she was sitting out there.

The bedroom stank. He ripped all the sheets off the bed and threw them in the bathtub. This reminded him that if he ever wanted to use his closet again, it would probably need to be cleaned up as well, so he went back out into the main room, ostentatiously ignoring T'Laren, and checked the closet. It reeked, but not of urine or feces; she hadn't even used the urn he left for her for the purpose. The smell was more like sweat, and musk – possibly, literally musk, or the Vulcan equivalent thereof. Who knew what sort of pheromones she'd been putting out that his human physiology hadn't noticed or responded to?

"When you're done eating, clean up the bedsheets, since you're the one who knows how to do it with the primitive solvents the Ferengi gave us. And see if you can get the smell out of this closet. I'm not going to be able to put my clothes back in it for a month at this rate."

T'Laren nodded mutely. The fact that she wouldn't talk normally, and that she looked horrible and couldn't even be bothered to put herself together to look presentable before showing herself, irritated him enormously. "What, have you permanently lost the power of speech?"

"You asked me to be quiet," she whispered.

"No, I told you to shut up, and I was talking about your idiotic need to apologize." He stalked over to her. "Instead we can talk about your distressing lack of personal hygiene, your poor eating habits – what are you, a rabbit? Quit nibbling on your sandwich and eat it. You look like you haven't eaten in a week, and since I think that's probably about accurate, eat something."

"I'm not hungry," she said, still whispering.

"I don't care if you're hungry or not! You didn't exactly care if—" He cut himself off before he said, or thought, anything more on that subject. "I did not undergo great personal distress to save your miserable little life just so you could starve yourself to death. Eat."

To his shock, tears welled in her eyes. She ducked her head rapidly, but not before he saw them.

"Oh, please! You call yourself a Vulcan? Are you going to cry every time I insult you? Because if you're going to be that unutterably tedious maybe I should just have let you die."

"You should have," she said dully, head still lowered, not looking at him.

"No, I shouldn't have, and you win the all expenses paid, star-studded, gold latinum plated, three year vacation on the Pakled homeworld for your unutterable, mind-numbing, indescribable stupidity in not telling me what was wrong with you until it was almost too damn late! You obtuse, pathetic misuse of Vulcan protoplasm, why did you think I would prefer to see you die? And I don't want to discuss this! Eat your short-sighted, bleeding-heart excuse for a meal and go clean yourself up! And the bedsheets!"

She pushed the food away and ran for the bathroom. Q rolled his eyes. "And learn how to act like a Vulcan while you're in there! If you're going to cry every time I say anything to you I'm just going to have to get meaner until you toughen up!"

When she was gone, he propped himself against the wall with one hand, leaning against it, and breathed, hard. The rage he felt was totally out of proportion to what she was actually doing, but he'd been doing so well at not thinking about why that was so far, it was a shame to break the streak. He dearly wished the Ferengi would actually show up; right now he could actually use the distraction of having work to do. But it was far too early; they weren't likely to make an appearance for another four hours or so.

Of course he didn't really want to deal with the Ferengi, either. As much as T'Laren's presence upset him, the thought of actually doing anything for Yalit's benefit filled him with helpless fury. But he didn't really have a choice in the matter; between the neurowhip and what they'd proven themselves willing to do to T'Laren, he had to do what Yalit wanted, and at least working would get him away from T'Laren.

Besides, he wanted to point out to Yalit how she'd just screwed herself over. She was angry that he'd tried to destroy her reputation? Exactly what did she probably think sexually assaulting a pair of Federation citizens would do? If it got out what she'd done, she'd be ruined. Kidnapping was one thing; the Ferengi kidnapped people all the time, and since their government didn't seem to think it was illegal and the Federation wasn't willing to go to war over a kidnapping or two as long as the victims were eventually returned unharmed, nothing was generally done about it. The Federation didn't go to war over or even get particularly upset about financial issues, and kidnapping for ransom fell in that category. But sexual assault was something else entirely, and by Federation law, using drugs to compel a person into sexual acts was sexual assault, and so was blackmailing a person into sexual acts by threatening the life of someone they cared for, and it didn't matter in either case whether the sex acts were performed with the perpetrator or another party. Prostitution was not illegal in the Federation, but trafficking was; forcing, blackmailing or otherwise compelling a person to have sex with a third party was considered rape, even under circumstances where the third party's acts weren't – for instance, if the coerced person was also being coerced into pretending that they were acting of their own free will, and therefore the third party didn't know the sex was coerced, the third party who actually had sex with the coerced person wasn't a rapist, but the one responsible for the coercion was. Q had actually looked into Federation law regarding this in detail after the incident with Amy Frasier – which had been very upsetting to him at the time, because the law had plainly stated that she had assaulted him and yet Security's laughing at the matter had made it quite clear to him that he couldn't possibly get justice, and he'd thought the Federation was more advanced than to have laws on the books they'd just laugh at. Now Q thought he understood a bit better why they'd laughed, and why T'Laren had told him that what Amy had done to him hadn't been sexual assault. He still thought she should have been punished for it in some way, but it turned out there was an enormous difference between someone doing something to you that you wanted badly enough that you couldn't bring yourself to make them stop even though you knew it was a terrible idea and you were terrified of the potential consequences, and someone doing something to you that you genuinely didn't want, at all, but you couldn't make them stop even when you tried.

He needed to find out how Federation law handled Vulcans and their weird sex-or-die compulsions. As angry as he was with T'Laren right now, he didn't want to see her prosecuted or harassed for what had happened; he wanted to be able to charge Yalit and her goons with rape for what they'd done to both him and T'Laren, but he didn't want T'Laren branded a rapist, although technically, from the pure facts of the case, she was. No. His breathing grew harsh and ragged. He didn't want to think about that.

Q walked over to the couch and sat down hard on it. He stared at the wall, eyes unfocused, not really looking at anything. This wasn't T'Laren's fault. Right now he hated her for it and wanted her to suffer as much as she'd hurt him, which was turning out to be much easier than he liked because she seemed to be more than willing to torture herself for it, and really, he'd have preferred it if she'd actually put up some resistance or fought back instead of blaming herself and crying because it wasn't satisfying at all to torment someone who was so broken already, but he couldn't exactly soften and offer her comfort or something asinine like that under the circumstances. The truth was, though, that he knew it wasn't her fault. She hadn't asked to be drugged; she'd tried to stop herself, to the extent of lying to him about the severity and nature of her problem and getting him to lock her in a closet. He knew, because he'd been part of her mind at the time, how completely disconnected from her own sense of morality and in fact her entire rational mind she'd been when she'd invaded his mind, that last time. He knew that she hadn't been capable of thinking about anything except what she needed, and that he was just lucky that that last time had been enough for her rationality to return. None of it was really her fault.

Of course, his rationality was on shaky ground right now. He might know intellectually it wasn't her fault, but she'd still held him down and taken over his mind against his will, and the fact that this hadn't resulted in his destruction the way it would have if he'd been Q only meant that he was alive and free to remember it. He'd probably get around to forgiving her… eventually. But he wasn't capable of that right now, and he didn't really want to be. Didn't he have the right to be angry? Who could possibly blame him for being enraged with her right now?

Apparently, not even T'Laren herself. Because he could still hear her sobbing in the other room, and he had a dim, faraway sense of a crushing guilt and self-hatred that he could easily tell wasn't his own. Which meant they were still linked, and dammit, he was angry about that too. Was he going to have to go around for the rest of his life with her mind imposing on him, able to invade his any time she felt like it?

Experimentally he tried shielding himself the way he would have from unwanted intrusion by another Q. To his surprise, it worked. The dim sense he had of someone else's emotions went away completely. That cheered him up a bit, though not enough to actually overcome the anger he felt. At least there was something he could do to protect himself telepathically, even in this reduced state. He hadn't been able to shield against tr'Sahlassiu for very long, but tr'Sahlassiu had been trying to break him, and had been using raw power against him; T'Laren wasn't trying to invade his mind, at least not right now, and as annoying as he found it to have any kind of semi-permanent link, if he could close the link when he wanted to it became a lot less annoying. He tried letting down his shields again, wondering if in fact he had successfully closed the link or if he'd just blocked it. When his shields came down, the sense of T'Laren's mind came back. So the link was still there, but he could control whether she could read anything through it or not.

Idly he wondered if he could do what he could have done when he was a Q, and put up shields that he himself could still read others through. Not that he actually wanted to be reading T'Laren's mind on a regular basis, but if he could see her and she couldn't see him, it would go a long way toward restoring a power balance that he felt had tilted far too much in her favor since she'd used her telepathy against him. On the other hand, he wasn't sure that mortal minds actually had enough layers to pull that one off; he used to use it on other Q by simultaneously distracting them with something shiny to disrupt their concentration while leaving a false façade of openness up on his own mind, creating the superficial impression that he was open, and he wasn't actually sure that there was enough of him left in this mortal state that he could put up a convincing impression of being open when he was in fact closed. Humans could only think of one thing at a time, maybe two at best, and Q had found that while he could control his body language and tone of voice the way that he could create false fronts as a Q, when he'd been up against tr'Sahlassiu and the Romulan had gotten through his outer shields, he'd had nothing left, not even the defenses he'd have had if they'd been verbalizing.

Still, it was an interesting idea, so he practiced, trying to actively read T'Laren's mind through the link while still keeping his own mind closed to her. It was impossible to tell if it was working, though, because T'Laren was so distracted by her grief and guilt, and to be completely honest by the irritatingly powerful sexual desires she was still suffering from, which made it very uncomfortable for him to read her mind and kept her from noticing what he was doing, so he couldn't read from her whether she could read him or not.

The sandwiches were still sitting there. This made him irrationally angry again, and he stomped to the bedroom and stuck his head in. "Hey, are you ever going to eat anything ever again? Because if you're planning to starve yourself to death, let me know so I can have your sandwiches, as I for one am hungry enough to eat one of the Ferengi if we just had an oven to cook them in."

"Go ahead and eat them," T'Laren said dully. "I'm not hungry."

"And you've been without food how long? Eat the sandwiches. How do you expect to get your strength back if you never eat again?"

She looked down at the floor. "It doesn't matter," she whispered.

"Oh, it most certainly does." He stalked over to the bed she was sitting on and stood over her, looming into her personal space. "You see, under most circumstances your choice of personal self-destruction would be none of my business. But under most circumstances, I wouldn't have undergone an exceedingly distressing experience, at your hands, for the ostensible purpose of saving your life. So I believe that right now, I have the right to tell you to eat your benighted sandwiches, or you will be effectively declaring that my sacrifice for your sake meant nothing to you. Is that actually what you want to say to me?"

T'Laren shook her head mutely.

"Great. Wonderful. Now get out there and go eat your sandwiches."

She got up and went back to the main room. The bed had been remade; apparently she had, in fact, gone and washed the bedsheets, although she clearly hadn't taken a shower to clean herself up. Q would have flopped onto it except that he was wearing full formal dress and his clothing didn't have enough give to it to do so comfortably, and besides, everything ached.

There was still nothing to do. It was too close to when the Ferengi were expected with breakfast to go back to sleep, and he doubted he could anyway, but he didn't have any more entertainment available than he had the night he'd had to lock T'Laren up. He had meant to leave T'Laren alone to eat her sandwiches, but he was too damn bored. Q went back out to the main room, where T'Laren was listlessly nibbling at her sandwich.

"How long are you going to be like this?" Q demanded.

"I don't know," she said, her voice hoarse, but at least she wasn't crying anymore. "It's never been brought on by a drug before."

"Well, how long is it before your appetite comes back, at least? Usually?"

"It's… not normally like this."

"Yes, we're both clear on that concept. I want to know what we can possibly expect, not chapter and verse of exactly what's going to happen to you now."

She shook her head. "It's not… over, Q. Usually… it was… two or three days, together. And then we would eat, and then… spend more time together, and… there was never a part where I was in it but I couldn't be with him… so this time is completely different. I don't know if my appetite will return soon, or in a few days… or ever."

He had gone cold when she said it wasn't over. "You don't… are you going to be all right? You're not going to die now, right?"

"I think so, yes. But… I don't know. It's never been a drug. And it's never been just me – Soram was always as affected as I was. You can't… you aren't Vulcan. Your limits… are human limits."

Q didn't know whether to be offended at the implied insult to his endurance, or simply appalled that Vulcans would typically spend two or three days doing nothing but taking naps and having sex under normal circumstances. He chose not to address the issue. "Well, you look horrible. I could guess you've lost as much as five kilos over the past few days. If you're actually biologically able to digest your food at this point, I strongly suggest you eat."

She looked up with an expression of utter desolation on her face. "Why do you care?" she whispered.

"Excuse me?"

"After what I did to you, why do you care if I live or die?"

Q shrugged. "You have no idea how boring it was in here when you lost your ability to converse. Besides, I can't very well get adequate revenge on you if you die, can I?"


"Oh yes." Q seated himself across the table from her and leaned forward. "I have not made your life nearly enough a living hell to pay you back. You're worthless to me if all you do is sit there and cry and starve yourself to death. Make yourself back into a worthy opponent so I don't have to feel like I'm beating up someone helpless when I crush you completely."

She stared at him for several seconds. "I don't want to fight you," she said softly. "Whatever you want to do to me, I deserve."

"Oh, well, I'm glad we're both in agreement about that, but that doesn't change the fact that if you just sit there and take it, it's no fun for me. Give me some sport; fight back enough to make it interesting." A blackly bitter smile spread across his face. "After all, I gave you that much."

At her sudden stricken look, he got up and walked away from her. He was going to say something that he never wanted to say to her, and he most especially didn't want to say in front of the Ferengi, if he kept talking to her.

It wasn't long after that that the Ferengi finally showed up. There were two of them, both ones he'd seen before, and they giggled and leered. "Nice show there, hyuu-mon," one of them said. "But maybe you should've let us take a turn after she wore you out. It was pretty clear there she needed more man than you."

His face burned, but aside from the involuntary response he couldn't control, he didn't let his humiliation show. "How unfortunate for her that there weren't any besides me aboard this ship who could meet her… exacting… specifications, then."

The other one laughed, a fast hyena-like giggle that seemed to be covering anger. "I'm sure we could have met her needs just as well as you could."

Q smiled maliciously. "I think that you couldn't have. Vulcans require that their partners have souls."

The one who had just spoken laughed again. "That's funny! Most women just require money and a big dick!"

"Maybe you don't approve of our morals, but she'd have taken any man by the end, whether you think we're nice guys or not," the first one said.

"Oh, you misunderstand. I didn't say you have no souls as some kind of hyperbolic commentary on your morals or lack thereof. I said you have no souls because you don't. No psionic ability, no immortal personality core to survive after your physical death. It's why every religion in the universe but yours emphasizes how no material goods will follow the deceased into the afterlife, but you've spun elaborate fantasies of wishful thinking about how all the things you acquire in your worldly existence will somehow follow you after you die." He shook his head, as if saddened by their lack of wisdom. "As a former immortal being of psionic energy, I have to tell you that your Great River is purely imaginary. Entities of pure psionic energy have no need for material goods; when most mortals die, their psionic cores, what some would call 'souls', are freed of their bodies and have no material wants or desires at all. There's no means for any material substance to cross over into the realm of psionic energy until a species becomes powerful enough to convert at will, like mine."

"What are you talking about?" the first one asked.

"I'm simply explaining that because you have no psionic ability, you're confined to this material existence. If T'Laren or I were to die, we would continue on to an afterlife, because we have psionic cores animating our bodies, but you're nothing but a body, similar to an animal. The amazing thing is that you actually manage to mimic full sentience without a soul, but sadly, it's an empty achievement. When you die, you die forever. You don't get an afterlife." He shrugged. "Sorry about that."

"That's not true. When Ferengi die, we become part of the Great Material Continuum—"

"Yeah, about that? It doesn't exist. Sorry. There is a continuity of all matter, of course, but it's called 'the universe' and you're already a part of it. There's no higher dimension of matter, no unifying principle, no Great River of material goods flowing through a different aspect of space-time. So, you know, go ahead and mindlessly pursue material profit. What you get for yourself in this life is all you get."

"We aren't even talking about souls!" the second one said. "We're talking about fucking your woman!"

"She's not my woman. By the standards of her culture I get the distinct impression that I'm her man, or at least she thinks so. But that's exactly what I'm talking about. She needs a man with a soul, or it doesn't work for her. I'm sure you knew the Vulcans are telepaths?"

"Yes…" the second said warily.

"Well, they need someone they can mind-link with, and you're an animal that can talk, so you haven't got a mind. Well, not a mind by Vulcan standards, anyway. She'd consider sleeping with you bestiality. See, I can touch her mind, and you can't. You're a soulless shell, whereas I am a real person, by the standards that matter. So I've got what she needs, and you don't. I may not be able to go all night, but by Vulcan standards you can't go at all, so unfortunately for T'Laren she was stuck with me."

T'Laren had apparently been listening to the conversation, and had wandered over to stand behind Q as he spoke, but she hadn't said anything the whole time that Q had been spinning his line of extra grade bullshit about the Ferengi not having souls… in fact the Ferengi did most certainly have minds and psionic presences; it was the structure of their brains that made them telepathically incompatible with most other humanoid species, not a lack of psionic presence, but Q was guessing that these ones didn't know that.

"I chose you," T'Laren said abruptly.

"What?" Q half turned.

She didn't look at him. She was glaring at the Ferengi. "Q is only half correct. It is true that you lack what I need in a man, all of you. What Q does not realize is that I did not simply accept him because he was the only available choice; I would be compelled to kill any man who touched me if I did not want him. No other man, Vulcan, human, Ferengi or any other, could have satisfied me. I chose him." She put her hand on Q's arm, briefly because he flinched slightly at her touch. "I will kill any other man who tries to have me. If any man were to successfully overpower me and force me, I would not be able to rest until I had found a way to kill him. I am not rational on the matter when I am influenced by your drug. I cannot be persuaded, I cannot be blackmailed, I cannot even voluntarily choose to go with one of you for some sort of gain. Until this drug is out of my system, I will kill any man who touches me but Q, or I will die trying. Do you understand?"

They had both gone pale, and they nodded frantically. Q watched them, but kept sneaking glances at T'Laren out of the side of his vision. When she'd touched him, the link had opened again, and before he'd had a chance to put his shields back up, he sensed that she was telling the truth – that she actually meant that she wouldn't be able to stop herself from trying to kill anyone who tried to rape her, and even more bizarrely, that she meant what she said about choosing him specifically. Which made no sense, because T'Laren had made it very clear in the past that she didn't want him, and it didn't make any sense for her to have changed her mind so radically. Perhaps it was some kind of chemical change in her brain brought on by the drug, or perhaps she'd subconsciously picked him because he was, in fact, the only game in town under the circumstances.

One of the two Ferengi shoved their bowls of breakfast at them unceremoniously. "Eat up quick, hyuu-mon," he said. "The Lady Yalit wants to see you in engineering as soon as possible."

"Yeah, fine," Q grumbled, taking one of the bowls and handing it to T'Laren, then taking the other.

They backed out hurriedly. One of the two yelled, "Good luck with her, hyuu-mon!"

"Better you than us!" the other called, and they laughed uproariously as the door closed.

When they were gone, Q turned to T'Laren. "What do you mean, you 'chose' me? You didn't exactly have a plethora of choices."

"I chose you," she said again.

"Yes, you said that. What does that mean? Choice in the absence of choices is pretty meaningless."

She shook her head. "I cannot discuss it."

"You… what? We just had sex in front of the monitors you insisted on putting in our bedroom, multiple times, providing no doubt hours of free entertainment for our captors, and there's something you can't discuss with me? Didn't your not discussing things with me result in you nearly getting killed because you couldn't be bothered to tell me that if you didn't have sex you'd die?"

T'Laren walked over to the table with the bowl of food. "There are two men in the universe I would have embraced at that time. Any other, I would have killed, or tried, and the blood lust might have been all the satisfaction I required. Had I killed any of the Ferengi, I might never have needed to touch you. But there were only two men who could have touched me. You, and Tris. Tris was not here, you were, but that isn't why I made the choice." She looked at him. "There is no logic to choosing. Rationally, yes, I should have chosen you because you were the only one here, but if you hadn't been here and a human man, or Vulcan man, I didn't know had been, I still would have chosen you, and died or killed for it. And there is no logic to that. There are a thousand reasons I should never have chosen you, and you know them because I told them to you, or because we experienced them last night, but I chose you anyway. I am… I am sorry I chose you, because I would rather have died than hurt you and if I hadn't chosen you, you would have never imposed yourself on me. I would have let you be, and died."

"Or you'd have tried to kill me."

"Only men who try to rape me. Or who look at me with lust, because they're imagining raping me. If I hadn't wanted you, and you had offered, I would have said no. And you would not have pushed yourself on me if I had, because you didn't want me. So no, I would not have tried to kill you."

He couldn't deal with this right now. It was sounding suspiciously like she was saying she had wanted him specifically, before the drugs, and he was pretty sure that couldn't be true. Unless she'd lied about it before. Or unless it was the drugs, the simulated pon farr, that had kicked her libido into gear enough that she could fall in lust with him, but why would she do that when she didn't even think he was attractive? Well, okay, she'd said he was attractive in a way she didn't find sexually interesting, like a work of art or a waterfall or something, but he'd always thought she'd just been trying to spare his feelings. And in any case he couldn't deal with it right now. She'd said it wasn't over, and now she was saying she had wanted him before this, or something, and the thought of her still being sexually interested in him right now filled him with both dread and a wholly unwanted guilty excitement. He shouldn't enjoy the thought of her wanting him, he shouldn't feel excitement, or worse, the warm burn of arousal, because that last time had been horrible and he had felt totally betrayed and he was still angry at her… and the fact that before that, it had felt really good, shouldn't matter, not after what she did. If he went around forgiving people who did things like that to him, he'd be a doormat.

"Whatever." The food wasn't appetizing at all, some sort of gloppy oatmeal thing, but if he didn't eat he couldn't very well harangue her into eating hers, and besides he was still very hungry. He sat on the couch, well away from her, and ate the oatmeal as fast as he could without getting it all over himself. "Eat your food, T'Laren."

"It's true," she said. "You were not a convenience, Q. Believe anything else of me, but at least you must believe that."

"If you try to tell me you're in love with me, I will vomit. Just be quiet and eat."

The Ferengi came for him moments after he was done eating, as if they'd been hovering around waiting. Just as well. He didn't want to be having this discussion with T'Laren right now.

"You really did it!" Yalit said to him with malicious cheer as he entered engineering. "Didn't think you had it in you, honestly, but you did it. How does it feel to commit bestiality?" She sniggered. "You seemed to like it just fine from what I could see."

Q took a deep breath. "Is there something I should know about you? Something you're not telling me? You seem positively obsessed with the details of my sex life. Some sort of prurient interest in me?"

She snorted. "You've got no lobes and there's no meat on your bones. If I wanted to fuck you, it'd only be because it's so sweet to hear you cry and beg, not because I actually wanted your cock."

"Oh, right, I forgot. You're incapable of any kind of sexual desire that doesn't involve causing pain. I'm sure if it were biologically possible, you'd be just as much a rapist as your offspring seem to want to be."

She shrugged. "You can't tell me that someone who's famous for tormenting half the species in the galaxy can't understand the attraction of making people suffer. The only reason hurting people doesn't get you hard is that energy beings don't have cocks and you don't have the power to do anything more than make smart-ass remarks now that you're human."

"And the entire concept of making people suffer pain during sex is not just disgusting, it misses the entire point of the ritual. When I had my powers and engaged in pleasure-sharing activities with my fellow Q, I could make them beg because they were desperate for more, not because they wanted me to stop."

"Most of the men I've been with begged me for more, too."

"So you took advantage of perverts with miswired brains to increase your personal power and satisfy your lust for other people's pain. Good work if you can get it, I suppose."

"It's just what I'd expect from a human from the Federation to judge other people's sex lives and tell people who're getting some harmless enjoyment that they're perverts, but really, I thought some sort of godlike being would be more advanced than that. Is that why they threw you out?"

"You hit me three times with a neurowhip! I was in agony for the whole day! Then you drugged my friend so she'd need someone to have sex with her, and nearly killed her! How is that harmless enjoyment?"

"It's not." Yalit's smile came back, twice as nasty as before. "It's what you deserve for trying to ruin my reputation, belittling me, insulting me, and lying to me."

"Oh really." Q's own smile matched Yalit's for cold malice. "So explain to me why what you did to me to punish me for 'trying to ruin your reputation' was something that was guaranteed to destroy your reputation, what little of it you might have had. See, as soon as the Federation finds out that you drugged a Vulcan woman to force her into sex, you will be branded a common criminal. A rapist, a trafficker, the lowest of the low. They'd have looked the other way about the kidnapping itself, but now that you've committed sexual assault, your reputation is ruined."

"I'm not worried about it."

"You should be. Even if you force the Federation to grant you a pardon, it'll still get all over that you did it in the first place, and your reputation as a scientist and inventor will be gone. And I wouldn't be so sure they'll give you a pardon. They have literally hundreds of different legal entities that could possibly charge you with a crime for what you've done to Federation citizens, so even if one such gives you a pardon they can come after you with another, and I wouldn't expect your ability to blackmail high-ranking Ferengi masochists to save you this time; if you're blackmailing them, they'd probably be delighted to see you disappear into the Federation penal system where you'll never be heard from on Ferenginar again."

"I said, I'm not worried about it. Why don't you leave worrying about my reputation up to me?" She motioned with her head into engineering. "Now, we've got work to do. In two days we'll be at the Bolian homeworld, where we can just drop your friend off. If you want the Federation to be invited to bid on you, I want a transwarp test that works before then."

Q blinked. "The Bolian homeworld? We were nowhere near there."

"Until we went into transwarp a couple of times. Our tests might've been short, but they got us some distance. You want to argue with me, or you want to work toward earning your freedom back?"

Put like that, it was obvious what he needed to do. Annoyed, because he'd really wanted to get more of a reaction than that to what he'd thought was a sure-fire zinger, Q walked deep into the engineering room to get to work.

But the Bolian homeworld thing nagged at him, even as he explained the documentation he'd created to Yalit and her sons. Early in his time as a human, Q had gotten horribly frustrated with the fact that he didn't know where anything was or how it related to each other in terms of how a human could perceive the universe; of course he knew where all the worlds of the Federation were, and more, and in fact probably had a better idea of what was on most of the planets in the galaxy than anyone else did. But he kept running into problems where he'd forget that some world he'd visited many times was deep in the Delta or Gamma Quadrants and nowhere near anywhere humans could get to, or that the transit time between Earth and, say, Betazed, was several days and not instantaneous, or that there were some worlds the Federation simply couldn't go anywhere near because of that pesky Romulan Neutral Zone that formed a sphere around Romulan space and cut off most of the Beta Quadrant from Federation exploration unless Starfleet wanted to send a ship out around Romulan space, which would apparently take a year and a half. It made him look stupid, when he forgot things that Federation citizens took for granted as basic facts everyone knew. So he had spent a lot of time with star maps, memorizing where the worlds he knew about actually were in relation to each other rather than in relation to the nodes of the Continuum, and cursing himself for not having been more careful when he picked out what memories he was going to bring with him into his human existence. Why did he even need to remember how anything related to nodes in the Continuum anyway? He wasn't ever going back there with his primitive human brain.

There was no way they could be anywhere near the Bolian homeworld. Q knew exactly how fast warp-equivalent 13 was, Ketaya's top speed; he knew how much space Ketaya could have crossed at top regular warp speed since they were taken captive; he knew where the Abister singularity was in relation to the rest of Federation space, including the Bolian homeworld; and he knew there was no way they could possibly be two days away from the Bolian homeworld. But why would Yalit even bother saying something like that if it wasn't true? What did she gain by lying to him?

It hit him then in a cold wash of horror, while he was in the middle of writing out the corrected diagrams for part of the process he had described in his handwritten and hand-encrypted documentation. He stopped for a moment, staring at the wall in absolute horror, before bending his head back down and pretending to work so Yalit couldn't see his expression.

Yalit wasn't afraid of what would happen to her reputation once it got out that she had kidnapped and sexually assaulted Federation citizens because Yalit had no intention of releasing either of them back to the Federation.

All she had to do was beam T'Laren into outer space and claim she'd been beamed to a planet. Or, since Q could demand to talk to T'Laren to confirm that she was all right, beam her into a holodeck set up to look like the Bolian homeworld, have her confirm that she was safe, and then kill her as soon as Ketaya was out of the area and Q couldn't check anymore. Or, since Ferengi weren't usually big on killing possibly valuable merchandise, maybe they would sell her to slavers. It could be true that Yalit wasn't planning on going anywhere near the Romulan Neutral Zone, but selling T'Laren to traders who were going there, who could then re-sell her to the Romulan Empire as a captive Vulcan breeder to create telepathic spies with, was entirely within the realm of possibility. And if that were the case, then Yalit had absolutely no intention of ever ransoming him back to the Federation, either. Someone who wanted to kill him would be the safest bet; he'd have given her transwarp, and she'd ensure he'd never get rescued by the Federation to tell people what she had done. If she sold him to the Cardassians or Romulans or someone, the Federation could notice from the technological advances that something was going on, send their own intelligence agents to investigate, and possibly rescue him, but if she sold him to the Ceuli or the Maierlens or Beryllians, he would be dead and the Federation would never learn of his fate.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe Yalit was telling him the truth, that she was going to free T'Laren and offer the Federation a chance to ransom him back. But what if he wasn't wrong? What if he let her send T'Laren off the ship to whatever unknown fate, and then he'd be alone and totally helpless for whatever Yalit wanted to do with him? What if Yalit decided to keep him, threaten him with torture to keep him producing technological advancements for her to sell? Her brood were obviously good at keeping secrets, given that Ferengi women weren't even allowed to manage money and yet she was in charge of their family's fortune. If an obscure Ferengi physicist suddenly started coming up with major advancements in technology, how many years would it be before the Federation figured out where he'd gone? And what would have happened to T'Laren in the meantime? No one was looking out for her; until she'd turned up on Yamato her family and friends had thought she was dead.

Either Yalit was stupid, and refused to recognize the damage that her criminal activities would do to her reputation if she were found out; or Yalit was canny and ruthless, understood well the danger and fully intended to prevent it from becoming a problem by never letting either Q or T'Laren anywhere near the Federation again, and was clever enough to lie about it to keep Q producing. And given everything she'd done, given the kidnapping in the first place and the fact that she'd seen through Q's own lies and tortured him into submission, given that she'd sent T'Laren a peace offering impregnated with more drugs and a plausible lie to keep T'Laren taking the drug that was supposed to let Yalit's sons rape her… no. No, Q was sure of it. Yalit intended to kill them both, sell them into terrible slavery, or do something that would keep her crimes from ever being found out.

He started feigning exhaustion then, started yawning, pretending to nod off at his work and then jerk himself "awake" with a start, made his speech start to slur as the day wore on, blinked a lot, closed his eyes and pretended to have a hard time opening them, and generally acted distracted and sluggish. Finally Yalit laughed at him harshly. "Rough night for you, hmm? Can't keep yourself awake? Go back to your woman and sleep, you're useless to me like this. I want you alert and fresh tomorrow morning, or I'll wake you up with a little of this." She patted the neurowhip.

Q didn't have to feign fear. "You won't need to do that. I'll be fine tomorrow. I just… I just need to get some sleep. We'll finish building this tomorrow. I promise."

"Good. You remember that."

They had to escape. He had to concentrate on pretending to be tired, on walking slowly when he wanted to run, bite his nails or lips, run his hands through his hair, pace wildly. Even when he was back in his room, his cell, he couldn't reveal how panicked he was. How could they get away when he couldn't coordinate anything with T'Laren? He couldn't even tell her of the threat; the trick with the sonic shower wouldn't work twice.

T'Laren was in the main area of the room, sitting in a meditative pose on the couch. She had showered and gotten dressed, and while she still looked thin, overtired and a bit haggard, at least she didn't look like, well, like she'd been locked in a closet for a day and a half. Q felt a sudden rush of concern and fear for her as he saw her; what if Yalit did send her away in two days? How could they engineer an escape in that amount of time? What was Yalit going to do to her in two days? Where were they sending her? Not the Bolian homeworld, he knew, but where?

And then he felt an answering response – guilt, still, and self-hatred, and nagging arousal, and a sense of failure, and worry. They had a mental link, still, and simply seeing her and feeling concern for her had automatically opened his shields and let it flow between them again.

In as brusque a voice as he could manage under the circumstances, he said, "My back is killing me. Can I trust you not to leap on me and rape me if you fix it? Because I really think you owe me at least that much."

Her face lit up, for moderate, almost-Vulcan-controlled-but-not-there-yet values of lighting up. "You would… trust me to touch you again?"

"That depends on whether you feel an overwhelming need to invade my mind, take me over and make me do nauseating things to your body, or not. Think you can control yourself?"

"I – yes, yes, of course. Of course I'll help you. I'll do anything you ask."

A completely unwanted thought about things he might ask her to do that would be fair recompense for the disgusting things she'd made him do for her flitted through his head, but he crushed it. This was serious, and the fact that the things she'd done to and for him yesterday, before everything had gone bad, had stimulated his imagination in ways he'd rather not have it stimulated under the circumstances had to be irrelevant. "Fine. I'll take off my shirt. Don't consider it an invitation; I just want a decent backrub."

"You don't need to. I… I don't believe you've ever… I've done it with your clothing on every other time I can recall."

"Yes, well, there hardly seems a point to maintaining any sense of bodily modesty around you anymore, is there? I used to make you do it with my clothes on because I didn't want to be inadvertently sending you any messages you could misinterpret about wanting to indulge in disgusting mortal reproductive rituals. Now that we actually have, I feel I can accomplish the same purpose by simply telling you, bluntly, no. I don't want you like that, so keep it to a backrub."

"I… of course."

He went in the other room and stripped off his elaborate outer clothing so he could actually get to his shirt, and took it off. She was a touch telepath. She needed skin to skin contact. His heart was pounding, terror that this wouldn't work and they couldn't come up with a plan and in two days T'Laren would be sent off to slavery or death and he'd be left alone to face a similar fate by himself, mixed with desperate hope that maybe this would work and they could find a way to win free, and the excitement at the thought of touching another mind. If they didn't merge, if they kept it to the top levels – and after his experiences yesterday, Q was sure he could keep it there as long as T'Laren didn't go berserk and use all her telepathic strength on him – then he could talk to her the way he had talked to other Q. He had been deaf and mute to his own native language for so long, afraid of what very little communication he could manage in it because it would leave him so exposed, but now the worst had happened and he knew how to keep himself safe, assuming she didn't assault him, which he had to assume because she seemed sane again and if he didn't trust her when she was sane, he had no one he could trust at all.

When T'Laren came in the room, following him, he felt a surge of lust from her as she saw him shirtless, and for a moment he almost panicked and called the thing off. But then it tamped down, Vulcan control finally good for something. He felt nervous and vulnerable as he laid down on the bed, stomach down and face turned to the side of the bed where he could still see her. "You ruined my back, and the horrible chairs in engineering haven't helped any. See what you can do with my shoulders."

"I'll do whatever I can to help." Her fingers touched him, warm and firm, and he flinched. But there was no sense of cold fire, no impression of her mind pressing against his or the force of her telepathy opening a path to his mind. He could feel her even more strongly than before – she was so pathetically eager to please him, to repay him for what he did for her and make up for what she did to him, so relieved and overjoyed that he was actually willing to let her do anything to make recompense, let alone that he still trusted her enough to let her touch him, that it completely swamped the desire she still felt. He knew, then, that he'd made the right decision. T'Laren wasn't in control of her emotions the way a Vulcan should be, possibly not even the way a human in her situation should be, but she was fully in control of her actions again and her emotional state was dominated by the guilt she felt over what she'd done to him and her desperate need to make amends. She wouldn't hurt him.

Besides, her fingers felt incredibly good as they dug into his tight muscles. He hadn't been making up the part about his back hurting. Q sighed, starting to relax slightly for the first time since waking up today.

Tentatively he sent, *T'Laren? Can you hear me?*

Her hands broke contact. "Q?" she said, sounding startled.

"What?" he asked, putting an irritable tone in his voice.

"I thought… Didn't you say something to me?"

"What, are you hallucinating now?"

"No… I must have imagined it." She put her hands back on his body.

*You didn't. I'm sending telepathically. Try to avoid tipping the Ferengi off that I'm doing it, please. Can you respond?*

For several seconds he thought she wasn't going to respond, that either she couldn't or she hadn't received. Then she sent, *Q? How are you… Are you actually speaking to me? Mind to mind?*

*You are a telepath. This really shouldn't be such a big shock.*

*But I haven't mind-melded with you.*

*You didn't notice? We have some sort of mental link. Didn't you feel it?*

/Shock/startlement/joy almost painful/*No… no, I didn't. And they don't work like this. I was… I couldn't have done this with Soram unless we were actively melded. We only sensed each other's emotions, and since we sought to control our emotions, even that was rare.*

*Well, I have spent millions of years talking to people in exactly this way, so it shouldn't come as a complete surprise that I can actually speak telepathically. I mean, I'm not a talking horse.*

*I didn't know I could talk this way, Q. It's not just that I can telepathically communicate with a human without being melded… I know you have much more skill with telepathy than other humans. It's that I can do this at all.*/wonderment/

*Well, restrain your enthusiasm, because we have a serious problem.* He sent her a memory burst of his conversation with Yalit, his thought processes, and his horrified realization that Yalit was most likely lying through her teeth.


/Irritation/*What? Did you not understand what I'm telling you?*

*That's exactly it. I don't understand. I… what you just thought at me was… too dense, I think. I only understood bits and pieces.*

Q sighed in exasperation, the sound turning into a gasp of pleasure as T'Laren found a particularly painful knot and rubbed it hard, working it loose. His back arched, sensations that were almost painful in their intensity shooting through his nerves. "Nngh. Right there, yes." *I suppose there's a difference between talking to a Q and talking to a mortal after all. I'll have to do this the long, slow way, I suppose.*

*Do you even realize how amazing it is that we can communicate at all this way? This just is not how Vulcan telepathy works.*

*Are you going to bitch about it all night? We have serious matters to discuss.*

*I'm not complaining. Far from it. I'm astonished. But yes, I did gather from what little I was able to interpret of what you sent that there's a problem. Something about, you think Yalit is going to kill us?*

*She told me-* He actually had to focus to keep it verbal; his instinct was to just send T'Laren the memory of the conversation, but apparently either their communication channel didn't have the bandwidth or T'Laren lacked the processing power to handle memory bursts outside of a full meld. *When the power failed, she told me that if I gave her transwarp and worked with her to prevent these kinds of problems, she'd return you to the Federation. That she wouldn't sell you to the Romulans, because she won't make enough profit on it to go to the Neutral Zone. She was saying it so I would get the power back on without blowing up the ship, but I thought she was sincere, until today. But she said today that she would be dropping you on the Bolian homeworld in two days. There's no way we could be near the Bolian homeworld enough that you could be dropped there in two days. And then I realized that if she lets us go back to the Federation, her reputation as a scientist will be destroyed… she'll be a convicted felon, or an accused rapist, or even if she does manage to get a pardon she'll still never live down what she did to us with drugging you. But if she kills you or sells you into slavery, after you're off the ship, how would I know? It makes much more sense for her to kill us or dispose of us by selling us into slavery than it does to ever let us go back to the Federation.*

*…Yes. That makes sense, I'm afraid.*

*So what do we do about it?*

*I don't know. You are hardly a trained fighter and they have never hesitated to stun me. Is there a way you can get the power to fail while you're in engineering?*

He grinned. *Absolutely. And if I know it's coming, I can get into the Jeffries tubes and get to a computer, so when the power comes on, I can get into the system.*

*How would you do that? They locked us out.*

*You remember that program I wrote for you to restrict my own access to the system? Remember that back door you pointed out that I could have written into it if I felt like it?*

/Amusement/*I did wonder if you might have done something like that.*

*Who, me, be devious? Naah.*

*As long as you can guarantee that the power will be off for a few minutes, I can easily locate and nerve pinch the guards that are usually outside our door.*

Q hesitated. T'Laren was Starfleet, and a Vulcan to boot. She was probably not going to react well to this, but he had to point it out. *You can't nerve pinch them, T'Laren. We're vastly outnumbered. We have to kill them.*

*If we have to kill, then we can kill. But if I creep up on an opponent in darkness, and I have a way to disable him and take his phaser without killing, that is the only right thing to do.*

*No. Morally right, maybe, but we don't have the luxury of taking the moral high ground. Our lives are at stake, T'Laren. There's at least twenty Ferengi aboard this ship at any given time, because that's how many men Yalit told me she'd have take turns raping you if I didn't help you with your little problem.* He caught a backwash of horror and rage from her mind. Good. Maybe if he reminded her of exactly what the Ferengi were capable of doing to them, she wouldn't resist him on this. *If you knock them unconscious, they'll start waking up while you're still taking others out. They're not going to go easier on us if they recapture us just because we refrained from killing any; if we successfully pull off an escape attempt and then we don't follow through by getting them all off the ship one way or another, they will outnumber us, they'll overpower us, and then they probably will rape you just to teach us a lesson or something. And they'll probably use a neurowhip on me. Or rape me, too. Yalit threatened to have her goons do that once. Or both.* His fingers tightened in the blankets, clenching, unable to stop himself from tensing up even as T'Laren was still working on his back, and he knew the full dimension of the fear he felt was getting through the link, but he didn't try to hide it from her. She had to know what they were up against, and she had to know how worried he was. *And then they'll kill you or sell you to slavers who're on their way to Romulus anyway, and they'll sell me to people who want to torture me to death. We can't fail. We don't have a starship backing us up, and they've got a whole other ship they can bring into play; if I let the test run for a few minutes before the crystals blow, the other ship won't be in range to help them for some time, but we have no idea how many Ferengi are aboard that thing and we don't have weapons worth speaking of. We have to be able to take them all out, rapidly, have them stay out, get the transwarp back on and run like hell, or alternately take them all out, have them stay out, and find a way to destroy their other ship even though its shields are probably better than our weapons. We can't do that if we let them live.*

He could actually feel her recognition that his logic was correct, even as her moral system rebelled against his conclusions. *Very well. Until we have secured control of the ship, we will kill them if they are combatants. I don't want to kill the child who brought me the grapes, and I don't want to kill Yalit. /i do want to kill yalit but wanting to kill is wrong/ People who cannot fight, we should not kill.*

*Children can point a phaser. So can Yalit. I won't promise not to kill anyone until I know we're safe.*

*Q, you aren't the one who's going to be killing people. I have the military training. You need to take control of the computer system and keep yourself in a safe, secure location until I've secured the ship.*

/negation/*You're right, it would be ridiculous to have me running around with a phaser. But I'm not going to sit there like some sort of princess in a tower and wring my hands while you risk your life. I'm going to do what I know how to do.*

*And in the context of warfare, what do you know how to do?*

/vicious delight/*I know how to use technology in ways you mortals have never thought of, because I've seen other mortals come up with it. I gave the Federation the tricks they used to defeat the Borg. And I know something that nobody in the Federation or even its nastier neighbors seems to have figured out.*

*What is that?*

*That teleportation isn't just a means of transport. It's a weapon.*

She stopped touching him abruptly, but he could still hear her mental voice. *The transporter?*


*How am I still hearing you? I'm not touching you anymore!*

*I don't know, but I am getting a horrendous headache. I think perhaps my brain isn't really well-designed for this anymore.*

*Well. We have a plan, at least. And perhaps, if we can communicate when we aren't touching, we can coordinate tomorrow. I'll assume I should move the moment the power goes out, but if you have a way of warning me before it goes back on…*

*If I'm still in engineering to know it's coming back when it goes back on, the plan will have gone very wrong. I won't be able to warn you. But if we can communicate without touching… I have no idea if it will work at a distance. You're not a distance telepath of any kind and I shouldn't be a telepath at all. But we can try it tomorrow when I'm in engineering, see if it works. And I really have to stop doing this. Everything's starting to get halos.*

*A migraine?*

*About to be.*/alarm/*What are you doing?*

She dug her fingers into a spot on his collarbone. *I'm about to knock you unconscious. If you lose consciousness before the migraine starts, it might never begin, or you might be unconscious through the worst of it.*

*Really? That actually works? Why didn't you do that for me when I wanted you to break my neck?*

*I wasn't entirely rational at the time, Q. I didn't think of it.*

He took a deep breath. The idea of being knocked out wasn't appealing, but the terrible pain building in his head, and the eerie glow around solid objects heralding pain so terrible he wouldn't be able to tolerate light or sound, were much less so. Q hadn't had many full-blown migraines in his human existence – most of his headaches were tension headaches, terrible in their own way but not as mind-numbingly awful as a migraine. Most of them had happened while the Maierlen assassin was stalking around the base, so he'd thought they were a reaction to the waspoid stings, but since then he'd had one or two without any connection to the waspoids. Even Li had been willing to give him medication when he'd been hit by migraines – apparently, unlike his other headaches, they actually showed up when Li scanned his brain. *All right. Go ahead.*

There was a sudden stabbing pain in his collarbone, and then waves of numbness radiating down his spine, nauseating him and making him lose any sense of his body, and then a final wave of cold darkness washing over his consciousness.

T'Laren sat by Q's unconscious form for several minutes after nerve-pinching him. She hoped he'd naturally fall asleep before the nerve pinch wore off; it wasn't that late, but he hadn't been sleeping well.

He was still willing to trust her. At least, to the extent of being willing to work with her to escape the Ferengi. Perhaps she shouldn't read so much into it; Q was capable of being ruthlessly practical when he had to be, and with his life at stake it shouldn't be surprising that he could push aside his anger at her. But the fact that he could do it at all gave her hope.

She'd had no idea that she'd formed a permanent link with him last night. Most Vulcans were bonded together by healers, either as children or in their marriage ceremony as adults, the way she had with Soram. She hadn't even known she could form a permanent link with anyone, much less a non-telepath. Although she was starting to have her suspicions about that.

What Q had just been doing wasn't possible for a non-telepath. It wasn't just that non-telepaths wouldn't know how to conduct a conversation in words while mind-to-mind; he had actually opened a link and transmitted through it, and kept doing it even when she wasn't touching him at all. The fact that the link had already been formed, by her, while she'd been mad with pon farr too long denied, was bizarre in itself, but the fact that Q could use it the way he had… the only conclusion she could draw was that he wasn't a non-telepath. Somehow, he was a telepath without telepathy, locked inside his own head until someone linked to him, but as soon as the bridge was built he was apparently capable not just of sending messages over it but of sending troops. Her mind was still reeling from his attempt to transmit her a set of full memories; she could have gotten that from him if they had been melded, in full mental contact, but not over a marital link.

And that was another thing. Eventually she was going to have to either figure out how to dissolve the link, or explain to Q that by Vulcan common law they were now married. Though the upper classes of pre-Surak Vulcan had demanded elaborate ceremonies to establish marital bonds between betrothed couples, the commoners of Old Vulcan had had much simpler strategies; they went to the healer, they got bonded, they consummated the bond in pon farr, and that was it, they were married. Then after they recovered the man usually went to live with the woman's family and the woman's family threw a really big party for the couple. No one on Vulcan did things that way anymore; when Surak's teachings had leveled most of Vulcan's class system everyone had adopted the upper class marriage customs, where betrothal occurred in childhood and was formalized in the ceremony before pon farr, or possibly during it, but the common law was still on the books and quite a few of the spacefaring Vulcans T'Laren descended from through her mother used the simplified custom, usually but not always after getting a Federation marriage license. Generally, only spacefarers who married homeworld Vulcans, like T'Laren's own mother, bothered with the full ceremony. Common law would not recognize a bond between two women, but between a man and a woman, or two men, a permanent bond forged in pon farr meant the couple was married, even if they had made the bond themselves without relying on a healer.

There were more ridiculous things in the universe than the notion of accidentally marrying Q, or of herself or Q marrying anyone, in fact, but right now she couldn't think of them. She was legally dead and Q was, well, Q. And after what she had just done to him, she was sure he'd be even more appalled than he would ordinarily be at the thought of marrying her.

Of course, if tomorrow didn't go well the whole point would be moot. She was fairly sure that she could force the Ferengi to kill her in combat if she had to – she would not be made a captive breeder. But they would be much more careful with Q, as he was both more valuable and less dangerous in combat. Although, that would possibly be an underestimation. Q couldn't fight hand to hand, she wasn't sure he'd even know how to use a phaser or be able to aim it, and he would be helpless against weapons like the neurowhip… but given what he had thought to her about using the transporter for a weapon… It was entirely possible that Q and she, in combat, would be most akin to the Vulcan weapons of mass destruction, the high-powered psis of the days before Surak, and the ordinary troops who would always accompany the psis to protect them from mundane threats long enough to allow them to deploy their minds and kill mass numbers. Q wasn't a psi, but his intellect might possibly make him far, far more dangerous than she was… if he could actually deploy his plan, and that would depend on what she could do to help him.

She had very little interest in food, but she needed to eat something. Tomorrow she would need to be at her full strength. T'Laren went over to the bowl of oatmeal from this morning and forced herself to finish it.

In the morning, it took a great deal of effort for Q to hide how nervous he was. He dressed in one of the exercise outfits T'Laren had made him get out of the replicator and choked down breakfast, the whole time thinking about how he could modify the notes he'd already created to make sure the crystals blew. It would be best if he could let the transwarp test run for several minutes, so they would be as far from Profit Margin as possible. He'd need time to take out all the Ferengi here on Ketaya before having to deal with the other ship.

As he left the room, he tried sending to T'Laren. *Can you hear me?*

Several moments passed, and then, *Yes. Where are you?*

*Not in engineering yet. I'll try again when I get there.*

He smiled cheerily at Yalit as he walked in to engineering. "I think we're almost ready for another test, if you folks implemented the changes I showed you yesterday. I have a couple more things you need to do, and then we should be good to go."

"You're remarkably cheerful."

"I'm looking forward to getting this thing done so you actually get around to ransoming me back to the Federation. I'm sure that as long as transwarp is incomplete, you won't even open the bidding."

"You're awfully confident that the bidding will go your way."

"None of the tiny little pipsqueak species who want to kill me have the resources the Federation does, the Cardassians have no money, the Klingons already have a treaty with the Federation so they'd just return me, so really my only threat is the Romulans and you've already admitted you don't want to go anywhere near the Neutral Zone. I imagine you'll have to involve the others in the bidding just to ratchet the price up, but I have every confidence that the Federation can and will outbid any other power in the galaxy." And this was true, at least as far as powers that the Q Continuum wouldn't step in to protect him from per their agreement with Picard and the Federation, but irrelevant now that he was sure she didn't dare to return him to the Federation.

"I might change my mind about the Romulans."

"Yes, and the Romulans might take me off your hands and then blow you up to recover their money. There's a reason they're famous for deceit."

"Well. We'll see. What have you got for us today?"

He took out the notes. This part was really, really important. He hadn't been able to refer to the notes, since they were kept in engineering, so he'd had to do the calculations in his head, from memory. In his head wasn't a difficulty, but from memory could possibly be a problem. As it turned out, though, as he reviewed the notes again, they matched what he had remembered. His calculations would work.

"All right, here's what you need to do…"

As he copied out the second half of the notes, decrypting it as he went along, he introduced several errors. If Yalit caught him at this… he didn't even want to think about that. But he maintained his composure. Yalit had absolutely no way of reading Vizoran mathematical script, had no way of knowing what angle he'd rotated his diagrams to. She'd catch him when the power went out, but she couldn't catch him before that. He had to believe that. Because if he didn't believe that, he'd never be able to hide his fear, and that would give him away.

It was noon by the time they had implemented his designs. Four cups of coffee and he was a jittery wreck. Over and over again he measured the distance to the Jeffries tube entrance with his eyes, always when Yalit wasn't looking. Over and over he scanned the engineering room, observing where everyone was, mapping his escape route. When the test began, he propped himself against a wall near the Jeffries tubes, arms folded, a confident grin on his face to mask the near-panic he felt. How was he going to do this? He wasn't a security officer, he wasn't trained for physical violence. What made him think he could do this?

Lack of choice, he reminded himself. If he failed, he'd die or be sold into slavery, or both. But if he didn't try, the same would happen. His only hope was to try. He couldn't make matters worse for himself at this point.

But what if he was wrong? What if Yalit was planning to ransom him back to the Federation?

Then she'd still have the secret of transwarp, and the Q Continuum would condemn him for that the moment it got any further than her, and he would never go home again. This was the only way he could make up for his weakness in giving in to her, the only way he could erase his mistake. Yalit and every engineer in this room had to die, to protect the mortals in this quadrant from the destabilizing influence of suddenly acquiring working Thetaran transwarp technology. If he didn't succeed in taking over the ship and destroying the Ferengi, he might as well die, because if Yalit sold that transwarp drive his existence had no meaning.

They passed the ten minute mark. "Looks good," Yalit said. "We're doing better than the last test."

"Mother, do you think we'll do it this time?" one of the Ferengi asked.

"We'll run the test for thirty minutes, then turn around and return to Profit Margin. An hour long test should prove whether the system is stable or not."

*T'Laren. Do you hear me?*

Again the momentary lag, and then *Yes, I hear you.*

His head was starting to hurt. *Be ready.*

Q got himself another cup of coffee and returned to his spot against the wall, except this time half a meter closer to the Jeffries tube. The Ferengi were all gathered around the consoles excitedly, chattering about the potential profits they could make if this worked.

Deep breath. Another. Any minute now.

Why hadn't they blown yet? Did he make a mistake in his calculations? Was this going to actually work, and ruin his only chance of freedom?

And then there was a huge noise, the crash of crystals shattering and the sound of an explosion, and all the power went dead.


In the dark, Q took three steps along the wall and felt for the hatch in the wall. He'd removed it so many times while he was exploring Ketaya and working on ways to fix the problem Lhoviri had left him with, he had no trouble doing it in total darkness. Yalit was shouting about getting a lantern on. That wasn't good. He had to move quickly.

Q clambered into the Jeffries tube and pulled himself through. Artificial gravity was still on; it would only go out if all the crystals blew. It was kind of unfortunate about that because it would give him a huge advantage if gravity did go out, given that he was the only being here who actually thought about space in three dimensions (more, technically, but at least three), but on the other hand, if all the crystals blew, he didn't have enough replacements to get warp back once the Ferengi were defeated.

Three meters in. Turn left. If they came after him he was trapped; they were smaller than he was, and his size gave him very little maneuvering room in these tubes. He had to get to one of the consoles before the power came on. They'd get it on quickly with all the spare crystals he'd shown them the last time; what he'd engineered should only have blown one or two. Half a meter and then up. Four more meters and he was there, feeling the console under his fingertips.

He waited, until the dim lights of the Jeffries tubes came on. Q waited impatiently as the console booted up. Before the LCARS screen came up, he hit the escape sequence, which dumped him into the text input screens the programmers used to deal with system level administrative tasks. And then he put in his back door command and sent it.

"Good luck trying to get anything to work now, trolls," he muttered to himself. The LCARS screen came back up, with the request for password. Q typed the password, and then spoke it, restoring his voiceprint to the computer.

The feeling of being able to control the computer again with his voice was an unbelievable relief. But it would be stupid to continue to speak; Ferengi hearing was excellent, and he had no defenses if they climbed in here and found him. Without computer access they'd have a hard time locating him, but he'd lose that advantage if he kept talking. So he opened another keyboard interface, and began to type.

The first thing he did was pull up their location. They were actually more than halfway to the Romulan Neutral Zone. And nowhere near the Bolian homeworld. Q wondered if Yalit had made a deal with the Romulans after all. A neutral trading post, Miona Station, was within a few hours of transit from here at regular warp, slightly over a day from their original position before transwarp kicked on. That was probably where Yalit had planned to dump T'Laren, and possibly where she'd meet and negotiate with whoever she wanted to invite to bid on Q. Q swallowed, realizing suddenly that the Ceulan homeworld was actually only two or three days of transit from here. Pain was pain and death was death, but the way the Ceuli wanted to execute him frightened him more than most of his other enemies' intentions toward him.

He checked for Profit Margin. It wasn't in sensor range. The only ships that were appeared to be heading toward or leaving Miona Station. So it was at least a few hours away, possibly as much as more than half a day. The crystals had blown out near the edge of Yalit's planned course, before they could turn around and head in the other direction – luck, because he hadn't known what sort of course Yalit would plot for the transwarp test.

First things first. Q pulled up a map of all life signs on Ketaya. One Vulcan, in the corridor outside his suite. Good, T'Laren had gotten out. One human, in the Jeffries tube system. And twenty-one Ferengi - no, make that twenty. He'd thought for a moment there was a life sign in the corridor with T'Laren, but he must have been wrong, because there was no sign of a Ferengi there now. There were six on the bridge, two in the captain's quarters, seven in engineering, and five more moving in the corridors.

The bridge was important. There were only two places on the ship that allowed precise control of the transporter, the transporter room itself and the bridge. And the bridge would give him control of many other systems, unlike the transporter room. Strategically, he needed control of the bridge.

Q began typing in commands. He had a plan.

When Q warned her to be ready, T'Laren paced over to the door. She couldn't do anything to tip her hand to the Ferengi monitoring her, so she paced, restlessly, like a caged tiger. And then the power went out.

She'd done this before. Without wasting energy, she pulled the panel off the emergency door release and yanked the lever. The doors opened loudly, as she'd expected. She ducked to the side of the door.

"You better not be trying to escape again! I'll shoot!" a voice yelled. "Don't think I won't!"

It was one of the ones who had taken her swimming, who had been stroking his lobes and probably fantasizing about raping her. Sudden rage built. T'Laren had much more control of herself now that the worst symptoms of the pon farr had passed, but because she hadn't been able to fully satisfy it, elements of the emotional instability and violence remained.

She waited, silent, barely breathing. "Hey! Where are you? I'm going to start shooting if I don't hear from you!"

And there he was. She could hear his feet, the jingle of the little metal bangles he wore to prove how rich he was, could smell worms on his breath. In one swift motion, T'Laren turned to face him, grabbed him, and clamped the back of his neck in the tal shaya maneuver. A quick clench of her fingers, a twist, and his neck broke neatly and cleanly.

She was breathing hard. The worst part of this was not that she had to kill. Q was right, unfortunately; as outnumbered as they were, they really didn't have a choice about that. The worst part was that she liked it. Killing the Ferengi sent a thrill through her body almost as exciting as finally having Q in her arms had been. T'Laren knew, intellectually, that the whole reason for Surakian discipline was that Vulcans were biologically an incredibly violent species, that the pon farr had always linked lust and violence, and that if she was a chooser, killing men who stood between her and the man she had chosen was part of the blood fever and could arouse her as much as killing a challenger for his woman could arouse a man… and in fact the bloodlust had even been known to short-circuit the pon farr, satisfying its requirements without sex being involved at all. It was biology, not her fault. But she felt filthy, more degraded than she'd felt naked and locked in a closet howling her needs to the uncaring walls. Not only was she a rapist, she got a sexual thrill out of killing people. Telling herself that she wasn't really like this and it was the remnants of the pon farr doing it to her didn't actually make her feel much better about it.

Well. If killing people with her bare hands sent shocks of pleasure through her nervous system, perhaps killing people with a phaser would let her achieve more detachment, more control. She groped in the dark until she found the dead man's phaser. It was already set to kill, not stun. Apparently the Ferengi had been really frightened of her ability to withstand stun while the pon farr was in full rage. The stun setting would take her out now, but they probably didn't know that. She would have to be very careful.

When T'Laren had gotten dressed this morning, she had never put her boots on; she hadn't bothered to try to wear footgear since removing them during the pon farr, in fact, because her body was in water conservation mode and her feet were somewhat bloated. Now, it would be helpful – boots would be loud on the corridor floor. Silently she padded out of the room barefoot, listening and looking. The darkness was total, but her eyes had adapted and would see any heat source as powerful as a warm-blooded being as a dim glow. The Ferengi could hear better than she could, but they would be walking about with clacking boots and jingling metal, and she could see and smell better than they'd be able to. Her hand held the phaser, lightly. She'd sense Q's approach telepathically, and probably smell him as well, before she'd be in range to shoot him, so she was confident that she couldn't accidentally run into him, and anyone else she encountered on this ship was an enemy to shoot on sight. There would be nothing stopping her from firing the phaser the moment she saw or otherwise sensed any being at all.

It wasn't difficult for Q to find the commands to lock the bridge so only his voiceprint could open it. That would keep anyone from being able to get on or off the bridge. Hacking into life support was a bit more difficult. For obvious reasons it wasn't a system that had been made particularly easy to get to. But after a few minutes he had control. Now to set things for his benefit.

*T'Laren. Can you handle zero gee?*

*Most certainly.*

Good. He killed gravity. The resulting weightlessness gave him a sense of euphoria, literally a weight that dragged him down being lifted off him. That ought to make life extremely difficult for the Ferengi.

The next thing to do was make things easier for T'Laren and more difficult for the Ferengi she'd be fighting. He set the temperature, humidity and oxygen mix controls to Vulcan normal – hot, dry and thin. Given that the Ferengi homeworld was more humid and cooler than Earth was in general, with a denser atmosphere, changing to Vulcan normal would be much harder on them than it was on him. Although, at some point, he would have to get himself an oxygen tank. His brain wouldn't work at its highest capacity if he didn't provide it as much oxygen as humans were evolved to need. But it would be some time before he got to that point.

And now, the main event.

The prospect of doing this both frightened and exhilarated him. Ever since becoming mortal, Q had never taken another mortal's life. He considered it wrong, for the same reason harming another Q would have been wrong. Harming or destroying a life that existed at your own level of existence was a moral evil, whereas harming or destroying a lesser life was just not particularly nice. But when one was of the Powers of the universe, one could pretty much count on other Powers not doing anything to harm one. Once everyone reached a certain level of evolutionary development, violence between beings was almost unheard of. It wasn't quite as easy to maintain non-violence when one was mortal, because there were no shortage of other mortals trying to hurt you.

He reminded himself that he didn't have the luxury of a moral high ground. T'Laren's and his lives or freedom were at stake. Even Federation law authorized him to use deadly force to protect himself from death or slavery. The Ferengi were pirates, and you were allowed to kill pirates.

Q took over transporter control. From here there was a limited number of things he could do, but they were enough. The primary safety interlock on the transporter would not allow life forms to be transported anywhere but an enclosed space with atmosphere or a planetary surface. But the primary safety interlock on the transporter, like the primary safety interlock on the airlock and the replicator restriction table attached to his voiceprint, was based on a piece of hardware that Q had removed during his time with T'Laren before the conference. And the secondary safeties were software-controlled, and therefore, with the level of access his backdoor gave him, Q could just shut them off.

He checked the life forms on the bridge. They were clustered around the door. Excellent, that would make grabbing multiple life forms easy. Q put in transport source coordinates, target coordinates, and activated.

Three of the life signs vanished off his map. They reappeared outside the ship, and less than a minute later disappeared again. His life sign scan wasn't looking for dead bodies that used to be alive.

The other three life signs on the bridge had spread out. No, be honest. They weren't life signs, they were Ferengi. They were living, sentient beings of the same evolutionary level that he now lived at, very similar to himself as he was now, who were probably soiling their pants in terror right now, quite possibly begging and crying for mercy. Watching mortals beg and cry had occasionally amused him in the old days; after the Continuum had executed two of his two friends who had committed unauthorized reproduction and gone to live among humans, Q, forbidden to take out his frustrations on the human species, had run into a hapless Physm ship, and had taken great sadistic pleasure in their pleas for mercy when they turned out to be far too mentally disorganized, too superstitious and not nearly logical or rigorous enough, to pass his test. That was what they should get, he'd thought, for being too stupid to deserve space travel. He hadn't penalized the entire species, because one had been smart enough to figure out how to survive, so he'd let her live and limp back to her homeworld… which, of course, had backfired on him a year ago when she'd come for him, because she'd still been too stupid to figure out that sending an assassin to kill him could very well end up killing an innocent person by mistake, but obviously the possibility that she could someday threaten him had never occurred to him at the time.

Now Q took no real pleasure in these deaths. When he'd been thinking of them as little dots on his map, obstacles to be overcome, he had enjoyed wiping them out the way he'd have enjoyed taking an opponent's rook or bishop during a game of chess. When he reminded himself that they were the same kind of life form as he was now, capable of the same emotions he felt, it made him slightly sick. He wished he could reclaim the detachment, the feeling that mortal lives were nothing and he could destroy them for fun if he wanted to, that he'd felt as a Q, but that was long gone… he'd spent too long living alongside them, suffering the things they suffered, to be able to enjoy mortal deaths. This was something he had to do because they were going to kill him and T'Laren if he didn't, but the only Ferengi he was going to enjoy killing was Yalit. The others were merely their mother's (or grandmother's, in the case of the younger ones) dupes. He had to kill them, but he couldn't make himself feel good about it.

One was sitting in the captain's chair. That was probably DaiMon Dar, who had viciously insulted T'Laren for nothing but being a woman and then had fondled her at phaserpoint and threatened to rape her to make Q cooperate. Well, okay, maybe Q could feel just a mild bit of sadistic pleasure in one of the deaths besides Yalit's. He put in the coordinates for the captain's chair, made the transporter narrow-focus onto the life form only so he wouldn't accidentally take the chair, and beamed whichever Ferengi it was into space, hoping it was the DaiMon. For all Q knew, given that Dar had been the first one to bring up farr t'gahn, he might have actually been the one who had T'Laren drugged, and Yalit might simply have given her blessing rather than coming up with the plan.

And then he heard voices. "The tricorder says he's right up ahead!"

Silently Q swore. This was bad. He couldn't beam any life forms out of the Jeffries tubes with the level of control he had here; in fact the life sign monitors hadn't been able to precisely tell him that anyone was in the Jeffries tubes besides himself. The Ferengi were still reading as being in engineering… no, there it went. There was a lag, that was the problem. That, and he really wasn't deep enough in to make finding him a challenge.

He couldn't retreat; without this control console he had no weapons at all. If they had tricorders, they could find him wherever he went. Quickly Q paged through the help file looking for the hull breach protocols. Was there a way to throw a barrier between him and his pursuers?

Yes, but not a very good one. Q put up a containment force field less than half a meter away from him, designed for a serious hull breach that would penetrate halfway to engineering. It would work very well against hard vacuum, but it wouldn't stand up to phaser fire for long.

*T'Laren!*/sheer panic/

*What's wrong?*

*There are Ferengi in the Jeffries tubes less than four meters from me. They say they have tricorders, so they're going to find me any minu - oh shit.* They came into view and immediately started firing at his force field. "There he is!" "Why can't we hit him?" "It's a forcefield! Change to kill setting and fire to overload the field!"

*On my way.*


He couldn't simply sit here and let them shoot at him. When the field overloaded, any stray shot fired after that would hit him directly and kill him. Q floated backward, pushing himself with his hands on the tube flooring and walls while his legs were strung out behind him, watching them as they fired over and over again at his force field, and it flared brighter each time they did. If he remembered correctly, the next turn was… yes, right there. He rotated himself, pulled himself into the up tube, and flung himself downward, flying in the lack of gravity as fast as he could push himself against walls.

Above him he heard the sizzle as his force field failed, and now they were floating in after him, yelling. "Surrender now and we won't kill you!"

Q resisted the temptation to yell back at them how completely untempting the offer was. Frankly he would prefer a quick burst of phaser fire to the slow evisceration the Ceuli would commit on him, or being enslaved for the rest of his life, not to mention that Yalit would certainly torture him with the neurowhip if she could get her hands on him alive. Particularly after she found out he'd just killed four of her family members. But while death by phaser was a better alternative than being taken alive, it still wasn't a good alternative. He was breathing hard, his heart pounding, and the dry heat and lower oxygen content of the air was making him dizzy as he fled. He had to put as many turns between him and the Ferengi as possible; as soon as they could see him they could shoot him. Q pushed off from the wall to his side and went rocketing down another tube, this one running alongside the inner Deck 3 bulkhead.

He sent T'Laren an image of his position in relation to a map of the ship itself, and felt her assent. She was in position to help him.

Q stopped at one of the junction points in the tube, breathing hard. The Ferengi came into view, and he threw up his hands. "Don't shoot! I surrender!"

There were two of them. One of them adjusted his phaser, possibly setting it to stun. The other slapped his hand. "No, Fril. I don't want him unconscious for this."

Q didn't have to pretend to be afraid. He shrank back against the wall. "I surrender. Please don't hurt me."

This one was one of the guards Q had had several encounters with by now. He was one of the ones who'd held Q down and made him eat bugs. The Ferengi smiled with sharp-toothed malice and floated toward Q. "I said I wasn't going to kill you if you surrendered. I never said I wasn't going to hurt you, hyuu-mon."

And then the deck panel between Q and the Ferengi banged open, directly in front of the one making threats. Before he could react a slim hand reached in and grabbed him by the lapel of his coat, and yanked him through the opening. Q heard a cracking noise, like stepping on a twig in a forest. The other Ferengi yelled, "Brill!" and pushed off toward the panel, phaser out.

Q sent T'Laren a spatial image of where the second Ferengi was in relation to the opening. Her other hand stuck through the opening and fired at the Ferengi. The blast sent the man backwards, floating back down the Jeffries tube with a black burn mark covering his entire torso and a look of agony frozen on his face, his eyes still open.

T'Laren stuck her head into the opening. "Q? Are you all right?"

He was possessed of a sudden urge to kiss her. Which, as grateful as he might be to her for saving his life, would be stupid, since it would imply that he was ready to forgive her for what had happened two days ago, which he wasn't, or that he was open to the concept of indulging in more sordid activities with her, which… he wasn't going to admit to if it was true. Instead he took a deep breath. He was shaking. "I'll be fine, but I need to get an oxygen tank out of the nearest replicator. And painkillers. My head's really starting to hurt."

"Why did you change the environment to Vulcan normal atmosphere?"

"Because you can handle it and the Ferengi can't."

"What about you?"

"I can handle it better than the Ferengi. Especially since I still have replicator access, and they don't, so I can get an oxygen tank."

"The nearest replicator is in one of the passenger quarters. Do I have replicator access? I'll get them for you."

"No, I didn't have your voiceprint on file. They erased our voiceprints, they didn't just lock them out. I'd need to get back to the control console, but I have to do that anyway." He looked past T'Laren. "Unfortunately there's a dead Ferengi in my way. What happened to the other one?"

"The Vulcan death grip," T'Laren said shortly. She didn't sound happy about it.

"Can you give me his phaser?"

"Can you actually fire one?"

"I don't see why not. They're not that complicated."

She bent down and retrieved the phaser while Q, with great distaste, fished the dead Ferengi out of the Jeffries tube and tossed him out the opening. "You can take his phaser if you want to be a two-fisted gunslinger."

"I'm handed. It would do me little good."

"Take it anyway. You can use it as a hand grenade if you overload it. It doesn't look like it has the modern safeties on it."

"Very well. How quickly do you need that oxygen?"

"I'll re-enable you to the computer and then you go get it for me. Give me a minute, I have to get back to the console."

"I'll wait in the nearest passenger suite."

Q pushed off back down the tubes, and quickly returned to the console. He set the computer system to accept the voiceprint of anyone speaking the password "shoeshine" – the first word that came up in the dictionary lookup – and then transmitted to T'Laren. *Say "shoeshine" and you'll be in.*

*Thank you,* she sent after a moment. *That worked. Where do you want your oxygen?*

*I'll have to get to the bridge in a few minutes, so just leave it in the tube there and close up the panel.*

He checked the life sign map. Uh-oh. This could be a problem. Two of the Ferengi were heading for the transporter room, presumably to shut down the transporter physically. *T'Laren! You need to get over to the transporter room! The Ferengi may be trying to shut it down!*

*Why? What are you using the transporter for?*

*Um… I transported four Ferengi into space.*

/Horror/disgust/…moderated by guilt/*I suppose killing by phaser or by breaking necks leaves them no less dead…*

*Yes, and you'd do well to remember that.*

*I committed suicide by spacing myself. It's not a pleasant death, Q.*

*Well, once I have the bridge, I can beam them out on wide dispersal so they just never rematerialize. That would be painless. Besides, do you honestly think being shot with a phaser is fun?*

*No, but it kills very quickly. Being spaced… doesn't.*

*That's not what you told me when you threatened to throw me out the airlock… oh my head… I think the telepathy is causing this. I'm shutting up now.*

His head was pounding horribly, and there were halos again. Oh no. I can't have a migraine. Not now. He needed to get those meds. But first he needed to clear the bridge. No. Meds first. Reluctantly, Q went back to the spot in the tubes where T'Laren had left his medication and his oxygen tank. He grabbed the hypo and pressed it to his own neck, used to it from the days when Li had actually let him get the painkillers he needed out of the replicator. Oh, yes. That was much better. The halos and the pounding faded away, and the wash of relief bathing his head felt almost like ecstasy in itself. A few hits off the oxygen tank eased the tightness in his chest, and he carried the tank back with him to the control console, since the passages were too narrow for him to wear it on his back.

Ferengi were clustered around the transporter. He needed to move quickly. He could take out the ones actually at the transporter, but there was sustained phaser fire going on inside the bridge. They were probably trying to cut their way out, and if they succeeded and cut a hole in the bulkhead or cut the door open, the bridge wouldn't be defensible anymore. No, he had to deal with the guys on the bridge, and trust T'Laren to protect the transporter. Besides, if he could take over the bridge and then lost transporter, there were other tricks he could pull. But he had no way of taking over the bridge – well, short of shooting the two Ferengi, and given that he had no experience with gun battles and they did, that didn't sound like a great plan – without the transporter.

He zeroed in on the life sign nearest the door, the one near where the phaser was being used, and transported him into space, phaser and all. "Sorry," Q muttered. "Once I get bridge control I can just disintegrate you guys, but until then I'm afraid it's space for you." Since T'Laren had pointed out to him that death by space was a very unpleasant way to go, he felt worse about killing them; in the past when he'd felt the need to kill mortals himself, he'd usually simply made them disappear, unless he was trying to make a point by killing them in a less merciful way. The majority of those mortals who'd ended up dead because of things he'd done had died as a side effect of something he'd put into motion, the way the Borg had killed 18 of Picard's crew, not because he had personally killed them. It was already not sitting well with him that he had to kill mortals while he himself was also mortal; killing them in an extremely painful way was actually making him feel guilty about it, not a sensation he enjoyed. But he'd already been through all this already. He had no choice.

The last one was moving around the bridge rapidly. For a moment Q wondered what the hell he was doing, and then he realized. Of course, if he was moving rapidly and randomly, Q couldn't lock on to him. The Ferengi had figured out the only way to save his own life. He was probably bouncing off the walls, flying around the bridge as fast as he could kick off the surfaces. Had Q still been a Q, conducting a test, he would spare the man's life for being smart enough to solve the puzzle, but he was a human and powerless except for the control of the transporter. He couldn't afford to let the Ferengi live.

And then he lost transporter control.

His readouts told him the transporter was disabled. T'Laren wasn't there yet, but she was close. Q took a deep breath. Most likely this would get him killed. But at this point, it was one Ferengi who was frantically zipping around the bridge, who couldn't possibly know if Q had left the control console or not, and Q could possibly outshoot one man who was taken completely off guard. He needed bridge control and from here he had no weapons that could work at a distance if he had no transporter. He could wait for T'Laren, but there was no guarantee she could get control of the transporter room; she was a Starfleet officer, not a superhero. She wasn't even security; she was a counselor.

So. He took another deep breath, and then kicked off the wall. Time to try for the bridge. The worst that could happen was that he'd be killed; he was pretty sure they were beyond trying to take him alive by now.

T'Laren had training in zero gee, and training in combat, but not a lot of training in zero gee combat. A few minutes of logical reasoning, however, indicated that she should probably stick close to the ceiling, because the Ferengi were likely to be trying to stay on the floor and were unlikely to look up. Most planet-bound species didn't. As a tiny girl, T'Laren remembered playing zero gee maneuvers with her mother; the spacefaring Vulcans trained their children to think in three dimensions, since they had invented faster than light travel several generations before artificial gravity, and their traditions, like most Vulcan traditions, had continued after there was no real need. But T'Lal had died, and T'Laren had spent the rest of her life on planets or in artificial gravity. She was no expert on this… but she was probably better at it than the Ferengi.

Fortunately, the Tamlin-class yachts had zero gee velcro strips running along the edges of the ceilings and floors. T'Laren acquired herself velcro gloves and knee pads, and began crawling along the ceiling edge like some sort of insect. Magnetics would have worked but would have been much louder than velcro.

It was much slower than she would have liked; kicking off the walls and flying down the corridor had much more appeal, but if one of the Ferengi surprised her she would have no way to change her trajectory and dodge if she were floating. She had more than enough physical strength to tear free of the velcro instantly if one surprised her now, and since she was on the ceiling, they were unlikely to surprise her.

By the time she reached the transporter, her heart sank. The doors to the transporter room were open, a position they should not be in unless they had jammed or someone had cut through them, and the two Ferengi inside the room had gotten the console panel off and were disassembling the transporter. No, to be more accurate, they were tearing it apart, ripping out wires in big handfuls. This wouldn't be easy to repair; Q wouldn't be happy. Maybe she shouldn't have taken the time to use the velcro. Especially since it seemed she didn't need it; the two men were held to the console with magnets on their belts, and were entirely occupied with what they were doing, not looking up or even noticing as she crawled into the room.

This was too easy. T'Laren drew her weapon and fired, twice. The first Ferengi dropped from a phaser to the head without ever seeming to realize the peril he was in; the second was looking up, an expression of shock on his face, when she shot him too. The surge of rage and satisfied bloodlust she had felt when she'd killed with her hands was almost, but not entirely, abated by killing from a distance; she felt a grim satisfaction that disturbed her, but was at least not bloodthirsty joy.

Now she was going to have to fix the transporter. She kicked off the ceiling, grabbed onto the console, and swung herself down where she could unbuckle the dead men's belts and fasten one around herself. This left her uncomfortably exposed – she was visible to anyone who walked by the transporter room, with her back to the broken door, unable to see a potential threat – but there was no other way she was going to fix this thing.

She closed her eyes and summoned up images of the schematics of a transporter. Having a husband who'd been Chief Engineer was good for something; if they'd been more careful about how they broke the transporter, she might be completely out of luck, but they had been randomly ripping out wires and all she needed to do was remember how to reconnect them. Most Vulcans had eidetic memory for anything they'd read. She certainly had read many of Soram's technical manuals. What a pity she wasn't one of the ones with eidetic memory.

Well. If this didn't work she could contact Q and show him what she was seeing; if he didn't know how to repair a transporter, he had access to a computer and could look up a manual. But she didn't like the headache he had been suffering from. Q's repeated migraines during distance telepathic contact told T'Laren that there was something harmful about this form of communication; perhaps there was a reason Vulcan telepathy didn't usually work this way. She wished she had a medical tricorder to scan Q with, but there would be time for that after they won, if they lived, and if they didn't win or didn't live, the point would be moot.

There were three entrances to the bridge of Ketaya. One was the observation deck and dining room, one was the captain's quarters, and one was the Jeffries tube access in the ceiling. Q had locked all of them earlier. Before he left the console, however, he unlocked the Jeffries tube access. This would be a problem if the Ferengi who was bouncing around the bridge figured out that the tube was unlocked and climbed into it, but it was unlikely he'd sit still long enough to try to test it after seeing five of his family members beamed away.

Q made sure the phaser was set to "kill" – quite aside from the fact that if he stunned his opponent he might not be able to bring himself to shoot to kill after that, a glancing blow from stun wouldn't necessarily disable but a glancing blow from kill would cause considerable damage to his opponent – and then kicked off the walls and went up through the maze of access tubes, up to Deck 1, over the top of the deck with the hull of the ship right above him, and then down through the opening into the bridge. He shoved the panel open, quickly, and ducked back into the opening as phaser fire blistered the panel. Okay. Getting out of here was going to be a challenge.

"What did you do to my family?" the Ferengi in the room screamed. "Where did you beam them? Where did they go?"

The inside of the panel had a latching mechanism in the center, but the bottom was smooth, burnished ship-metal. Very slightly reflective. And the Ferengi wore very, very colorful clothes. Q could see him as the faintest of colored blurs reflected in the bottom part of the panel that was hanging down into the bridge.

"Space, actually," he said. He needed to provoke the man, make him react stupidly. "But don't worry, I was watching the life sign monitors. It took less than a minute for each of them to die."

The Ferengi screamed, firing repeatedly in front of himself and flying across the room at the panel. Had Q let any part of his body through the opening, the Ferengi's rapid phaser fire would have hit him. But Q could see the Ferengi's approach, as the blur in the bottom of the panel got larger.

The colored blobs and the pattern of phaser fire indicated that the Ferengi had rotated himself so he was facing up, his arm coming around to point up. He was going to pass under the opening, just below the panel, and fire upward to take Q out. Q looked at the panel, at the image in it, at the tube around him, and calculated his angles. And then he fired through the opening, before the Ferengi's eyes or gun had cleared the lip yet, pressing the trigger when none of the Ferengi was visible yet so that the actual firing, and the lightspeed death it emitted, would happen just at the moment that the top of the Ferengi's head came into the phaser's line of sight.

There was a horrific scream. Q kept his finger on the button for continuous fire for a second. No more flashing lights of phaser burst showed coming from the blob in the panel. And then the whole Ferengi's head came into sight, or what was left of it as it had floated under Q's phaser fire for a second. Q couldn't even recognize which Ferengi this one had been.

His stomach heaved. This is zero gee. I can't throw up. Zero gee, can't throw up. It'll float all over the room and there'll be no way to clean it and it will be disgusting. Can't throw up, zero gee.

It didn't help. He threw up.

He did manage to throw up in the Jeffries tube, retching repeatedly until there was nothing coming up but bile, and then he pushed himself through the opening and shoved the panel closed before any of his vomit had a chance to float into the bridge. The dead Ferengi with the phaser-charred head was still floating through the room, on the same trajectory he'd been on when Q had killed him. Q tried very hard to pretend he wasn't there. He didn't want to touch the body, didn't want the physical, tactile reminder that there had been a sentient being there and now there was a piece of meat because he had pressed a button on a phaser and burned the being's face off. Funny, this was not a reaction he'd expected to have. He had killed mortals before. But not when he was one. He'd been so worried about how his proficiency with a phaser could possibly work and how could he know how to shoot anybody and it turned out trajectories and angles and hand-eye coordination were all things he could do without thinking about it. He could look at a reflection approaching him and know exactly where it was in the room below him, exactly where he had to hold his phaser, exactly when he had to pull the trigger to kill the man before the other came into range to kill him. That had turned out to be child's play. He was actually a very good shot. It was the part about now someone being dead because he'd shot them that he was having a hard time with.

Him or me. Him or me. It was faster than you gave his family, anyway. Stop it. You're being an idiot. How many millions, billions of mortals have you seen die? Now here you're going to fall to pieces because you shot someone in the head with a phaser. Quit being pathetic and get back to work. You're going to need to kill more of them before you're done.

Now he had the bridge. "Computer, display life sign monitors on screen, overlaid on map of ship."

"Acknowledged," the computer said. And there they were. One in the captain's quarters, right on the other side of the locked door. Four in engineering, including the only female Ferengi life sign. Two in the Jeffries tubes near engineering, moving toward the bridge. Three roaming around the ship, one on this deck, two headed toward the transporter room. And T'Laren, the sole Vulcan life sign, in the transporter room.

He opened a channel. "T'Laren, can you hear me?"

Her voice came through main speakers. "Q? Where are you?"

"The bridge. I've got control of it. What's the situation with the transporter?"

"I couldn't stop them from disabling it in time. I am attempting to repair it, but the situation is dangerous; the doors are stuck open and I cannot fix the transporter without turning my back to the door."

Q tried making the transporter doors shut. "They're broken. I can't shut them. But I can tell you the positions of all the Ferengi on the ship. There are two headed your way."

"Very well. Where else are they?"

"Four in engineering, one on monitors which I'm shutting down now, one on this deck but not on monitors, and two coming toward you." He looked at his readouts. "Damn. Their other ship is actually catching up with us. I was hoping to have more time."

"How long before it arrives?"

"Moot point, T'Laren, I'm going into warp to get away from it." He punched in a course, and fired up the engines. Nothing happened. "Or maybe not." A diagnostic scan revealed what was going on; they had no warp drive. It had been physically disabled. "Okay, scratch that. Someone in engineering killed warp drive."

"Can we go to impulse?"

"There's really no point to that. T'Laren, I need transporters back ASAP. Our weapons are pathetic. We can't take on the Ferengi ship and right now we can't run."

"What good can you do with transporters? They'll have shields up; you won't be able to beam people off them."

"I have a plan, trust me. But I need transporters. Oh, and those two Ferengi are going to be able to see you in the next 30 seconds unless you hide."

"I'll have to deal with them before I can finish fixing the transporter, then."

"Obviously. Do what you have to do."

"Q, can you cut off all lighting to this deck?"

"Oh. Yeah, of course. Good idea." He killed the lights on Deck 3. As an afterthought he killed them on Deck 2 as well, where engineering was; of course there were emergency lights in engineering that weren't under bridge control, but they were going to be harder to work with even for the Ferengi with their dim-adapted eyes.

The Profit Margin came into range. Q's heart sank. Their shields were up; they must have been expecting an acknowledgement code at the end of the test, or something. If they had waited the full hour to go to high warp to catch up, they wouldn't be here now; they must have been pushing their engines to maximum since at least the half hour mark at the start of the test. So now they were flying in, shields up, expecting trouble, and Q couldn't run because Yalit had disabled warp, and his phasers were truly pathetic. The only advantage he had was that their mother and other family members were aboard Ketaya, so they wouldn't shoot right away.

"This is the Profit Margin, acting DaiMon Rek in command. Ketaya, acknowledge! Are you all right over there?"

Q didn't open a channel. He couldn't afford to respond. What he needed was transporters. And Profit Margin to drop its shields.

"Ketaya, acknowledge! What's going on?"

The life signs indicated that T'Laren was probably occupied fighting the Ferengi who had gone to the transporter room. He wasn't going to get transporters for a few minutes, at least.

"Ketaya, explain why we just found five of the crew floating in space, or we are going to fire!"

Q raised shields, prepared to fire Ketaya's inadequate phasers, and then realized that Yalit or somebody had managed to cut them off too. He was dead in the water, no way to run, no way to fight, nothing but shields and Profit Margin could just hammer on them until they went down.

"Now would be a good time to fix the transporter, T'Laren," he muttered, but didn't send it telepathically – she didn't need the distraction right now.

In the darkness, T'Laren waited behind the transporter console. The two Ferengi barreled in at full speed. "Where is she?"

Interesting. They must have a means of communicating with each other, she thought, to know that she was the one in the transporter room. The monitors didn't have infrared, so they couldn't know exactly where she was now that Q had killed the lights.

Of course, she knew exactly where they were, because she'd had half a minute to dark-adapt her eyes for seeing infrared and because they were being loud. She floated up silently in the darkness, head coming up over the console where she could see them, and fired.

She hit the first one. The second one kicked off the floor and flew across the room, returning fire and forcing her to dodge. She had the console to pull against or push off from, to alter her trajectory, so she was able to get out of the way rapidly and then change position again so the Ferengi wouldn't be able to shoot at the places she might have dodged to. He didn't have the same advantage. She could hear approximately where he hit the ceiling, could see where he was firing his phaser from, and knew there was nothing else he could hit on his trajectory to alter it until he got back to the floor. So she fired into his path downward. The Ferengi screamed, his phaser firing wildly at the ceiling, and then nothing.

It's unfortunate that you don't seem to be trained for zero gee combat very well, T'Laren thought, looking at the dead man as his infrared trace visibly cooled. In a phaser battle in zero gee you should never be far from a point where you can change trajectory, or your opponent will simply track where you're going to be and fire there. She knew better. Basic Starfleet training, and games she'd played with her mother as a very small child, and the racial memory she carried of her mother and her mother's mother and all the generations before her of Vulcans who had traveled in space, traders and explorers who followed the ways of Surak but rejected the planetary boundaries of Vulcan's gravity well.

And then the ship rocked violently, and she was flung sideways at high speed. "Q! I've secured the transporter room again and I need lights. What's going on?"

"We're under attack. Profit Margin seems to have found the fellows I beamed into space." The lights came back on. "How soon can you get me a working transporter?"

"I don't know. I thought I had rewired it correctly, but it doesn't seem to be working."

"Oh for the… never mind. I'll need you to change it anyway. Look at the transporter and send me what you see."

"I don't know if I can do that."


So she looked at the transporter, studying the tangle of wires, and attempted to transmit to Q what she was seeing. She was still amazed at being able to do this. She would never have been able to send Soram an image of what she saw.

"Okay," he said verbally, through the coms, "I got that. Now I'm going to send you instructions for what to do." The ship shook again. "But first I'm going to go to impulse. Hang on."

Yalit didn't seem to have disabled impulse too; in fact it was impossible to do that on Ketaya without shutting down all power. She felt the hum of the engines firing up, and the slight jerk, offset by the inertial dampeners, as they moved forward. "That'll buy us a couple of minutes, but probably nothing more."

The first thing she got from him was another confused burst of tangled memory and information. *Q, I can't understand that. Can you break it down?*

/impatience/fear/*We don't have time for this...* This time he sent a rapid-fire set of verbalized instructions, with images of what he was talking about. She did the first three things he had said, and then realized that she was completely confused.

*Q, is this going to work? It seems like you have me wiring this thing backwards.*

/grim amusement/*Bingo. That's almost exactly what you're doing.*

*Can you send the instructions again? More slowly? I can't remember them when you send them all at once, so quickly like that.*

*I thought Vulcans were smart.* The ship shook violently again. *Dammit, they've caught up with us! T'Laren, I need my transporter!*

*Then show me how to finish what you need!*

He sent another burst of multiple instructions. She carried out the first three again. *Send them to me three at a time. That seems to be what I can understand when sent at once.*

The ship shook again. The next set of instructions he sent came with fear and anxiety attached, and the knowledge that shields were about to fail. T'Laren finished that set rapidly, and transmitted the request for more before she was quite done with the last one.

*Last part. Do these-* More shaking under phaser fire as he sent the last set of instructions. T'Laren ran through them as quickly as she could.

*I'm done! What now?*

*You need anything out of the replicator? I need to wipe out our pattern storage database.*

*We can re-download at Miona Station. Do what you have to do.*

*Okay. Pull out a couple of your hairs and lay them carefully on one of the transport pads. Then get to engineering. See if you can secure it for me. There's four in there.*

She floated up and over to the transport pad, laid the hairs down, pushed away, and was sent flying into the wall by another burst of phaser fire outside. Under these circumstances she'd have to use the velcro, or she'd be thrown into a wall every time the phasers hit. She hoped Q would be able to hold off on needing engineering immediately.

What did he need to transport hair for, she wondered?

The transporter worked. He breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled up the antimatter program. It was one of the ones they'd built when they were trying to devise weapons against the Borg, based on his suggestion and expertise. He'd been greatly relieved that they hadn't needed it – he had called it a weapon of last resort and made sure that Starfleet had known not to use it unless necessary, because if the Borg had adapted the technique it could have been disastrous.

Transporters converted matter to energy and then, using the carrier wave containing the pattern, performed the reverse transformation. In theory, once you had the energy, converting it to antimatter should be just as easy as converting it to matter. In practice, the precision level of the transport pattern preserved matter at the atomic level. To get to the quark level, which would be required in order to flip the quarks and make the substance come out as antimatter, required ten times the storage space and significantly more processing power.

To get the storage space in the computer system for the extrapolation he needed to do, he deleted everything out of the replicator pattern storage array. He ran the disassembling scan portion of the transport beam, dematerializing the hair on the platform, but did not initialize the output beam; this was going to take several minutes.

And there went his shields. The phaser fire raked Ketaya's left nacelle, half-severing the support strut. Q opened a channel. "Don't shoot! We surrender!"

DaiMon Rek appeared on his viewscreen. "Where is my mother?" he snarled.

"Yalit's in engineering. She disabled my phasers and warp drive. You can run a life sign scan to prove she's okay – she's the only female Ferengi aboard."

"How did five of my brothers and nephews end up floating dead in space?"

This had to be done carefully or it had the potential to backfire on Q really badly. "Fortunes of war," he said with a shrug, smirking. "Sorry about that."

The man went purple. "We are beaming aboard to take control of your bridge. Prepare to be boarded!"

The transmission cut. Q was breathing hard. If they boarded all over the ship, he was dead. By smirking at them as he told them he'd killed their family, he had tried to provoke them into coming directly to the bridge, where they'd be able to immediately capture and punish him. Sometimes being a walking target for violent beings' violent tendencies could come in handy. It sounded like the plan had worked.

Now to enact the rest of his plan. His process was done and ready to beam out. As Profit Margin's shields dropped, so they could beam over here, Q activated the beam-out to transport the antimatter-converted hairs over there. Three pillars of light appeared on the bridge. Q set his phaser to overload while kicking off for the ceiling. He yanked the panel down and flung his overloading phaser down toward the three materializing Ferengi. As the men solidified, he pulled himself into the Jeffries tube overhead and threw himself sideways, directly through the floating globs of vomit he'd left there before. Behind him there was an explosion, and the shockwave actually shoved him down the tube some distance as overheated air from the explosion rose up and then expanded into the tube. Then the ship shook violently in the other direction, thrown off course and spinning around. Without artificial gravity, the inertial dampeners couldn't fully handle the load, and the Jeffries tube actually rotated around Q, until the wall of the tube hit him and sent him flying the short distance to the other wall. Q threw out his arms and legs to catch himself, bracing himself against the tube until the ship stopped shaking.

He reoriented himself and threw himself down through the opening, back down to the bridge. The panel that should close the opening, which he hadn't had time to shut behind him before the phaser exploded, had been torn loose and was floating around the bridge, as was one of the three Ferengi… no, actually, it was only the head and torso of the Ferengi, trailing blood and fecal matter as he floated limply through the air, his entire lower body gone and nothing left to hold anything in his torso. The other two Ferengi who'd beamed over weren't even visible until Q realized that the walls were painted the color of Ferengi blood, and a light crunchy paste of tiny, tiny fragments of bone and liquefied flesh was covering the consoles that hadn't been destroyed in the blast.

Q was partially in shock, numb to the horror of what he'd just caused. His viewscreen was gone, but miraculously sensors were still up. Previously Profit Margin had shown fifteen life-signs. Now Profit Margin wasn't there at all, just some random debris in space. T'Laren's hair had made just enough antimatter to blow the other small ship to bits without seriously damaging Ketaya, just as he'd calculated. Even better, none of those fifteen life signs were showing on Ketaya right now. Two Ferengi were in the Jeffries tube from engineering, heading his way, just as they'd been before, probably having been slowed down a good bit by all the shaking but they were moving at a good clip now. Two were in the captain's quarters/monitor room, again, and they were apparently cutting through the locked door to the bridge with their phasers. And four were in engineering. The same number of Ferengi as had been there before he'd blown up Profit Margin were still there.

The smell hit him then. For several moments he had only been able to smell ozone from the ionized air, but now a wave of the smell of blood, feces and burned flesh hit him. The detachment he'd been able to manage so far dissolved, as the impact of what he'd just done hit him fully. There was nothing in his stomach, so when he doubled over retching anyway, at least nothing came out. Not that it helped, with the air full of blobs of liquid Ferengi innards.

He didn't want to do this anymore. He didn't want to kill any more of these people.

For a moment he had a fantasy of staying exactly where he was, doing nothing, until either the team cutting the door or the team coming through the Jeffries tubes caught him, and they would probably kill him, and then he wouldn't see the half Ferengi body floating around and the badly shredded remains of the corpse whose face he'd burned off and the patina of flesh and bone covering everything. But no. You're going to give up and die because you're a bad person? What an idiot. It's three million years too late to be a good person, Q. If you were going to lay down and die out of guilt for killing mortals, maybe you should have killed yourself aboard the Enterprise after all.

But he didn't want to do what he was going to have to do to save himself.

He couldn't unlock the observation deck door, because the Ferengi on the bridge's attempt to cut through it had damaged it and fused the locking mechanism. The transport platform would take him into engineering, also swarming with Ferengi. So he had no escape route unless he removed his pursuers from either the Jeffries tube or the captain's quarters' door. And he had no phaser any more, so it would have to be the transporter. But the antimatter protocol couldn't handle anything larger than a kilo. He purged the program, restoring the usual matter-based process. The problem now was that the rewiring he'd had T'Laren do had destroyed all the usual safety protocols, including the discriminate matter protocol that made sure only whole objects would be picked up in the beam. Which meant he couldn't take the guys who had an active phaser, because if he accidentally cut a working phaser in half it would explode, and the shrapnel from the exploding door would rip him to bits.

With shaking hands, he focused the transporter on the Ferengi above him. They were actually in the stretch above the bridge now, moments from reaching him. Q activated the transport. There were horrible, horrible high-pitched screams over his head, and then silence. Q looked up. There was a hole in the bulkhead over his head – he had aimed the beam low rather than high to avoid accidentally transporting part of the hull, so he'd gotten the floor of the tube, his own ceiling, instead.

Q took a hit off his oxygen tank, the smell in the room almost paralyzing him with nausea even though he had vomited everything in his guts up. A few deep breaths of pure O2, and he was able to kick off for the hole in the Jeffries tube.

Floating in the tube was a severed Ferengi head and a few centimeters of shoulder on one side of the hole, knees and lower legs of a different Ferengi on the other. There was so much blood in the tube he needed to close his eyes and find his way blind, and he had to hold his breath because the blood would have choked him otherwise. He found his way to the turn down and kicked off down it, finally able to open his eyes and breathe, just as he heard the doors to the bridge bang open behind him.

The power went out. That had to be Yalit, recognizing that leaving the power up, and thus leaving Q free to use the transporter, was deadly. That didn't bother him so much; he'd gone through the tubes in the dark before. And then he heard screams behind him, and one voice yelling "Focus! Focus the light up ahead so we can get the bastard! Stop, stop shining it on Tak's head, stop…"

They had lights. Dammit. Q took another hit off his oxygen tank, and then curled into a ball around the tank so he could use it for propulsion. His back was in the direction he needed to go, his knees slightly apart to give the air somewhere to escape to, one arm wrapped around the tank holding it to his chest and one hand ready to release the valve.

He could still hear the Ferengi's cries of outraged horror. They'd found their other relative's legs. If they caught Q, it was unlikely he'd survive it. Q released the valve and the oxygen shot out, pushing him at high speed down the tube toward the bottom of Ketaya. He kept one hand out to keep from hitting the walls, occasionally kicking the wall to steer and speed himself even more, shooting all the way down the main shaft to Deck 4. In the dark he misjudged the distance and ended up slamming into the bottom of the shaft, hard. The oxygen tank fell out of his armhold and began spinning around, whacking Q in the head before he managed to catch it and shut the valve.

A phaser shot seared the wall next to him. Q yelped and dove up for the opening to the lateral tube that ran along Deck 4. He needed a phaser, and he needed to stay out of the way of his pursuers. Belatedly he wished he'd recovered the phaser of the guy whose face he'd burned off, but he'd been too much in shock to think of it at the time. The ones chasing him lacked a tank of gas to use as a means of propulsion, so they couldn't move as fast, but it had been a mistake for him to go straight down a single shaft where they could use their hand lamps and superior hearing to detect that he was in line of sight, and shoot at him. In the dark and with the entire height of Ketaya between him and them, their accuracy was lousy, but it would only take one lucky hit. He turned the canister back on and shot down the narrower lateral tube, until he overshot the opening and had to catch it with his feet.

Q kicked open the panel and crawled out into the corridor. The armory was here on Deck 4 with the rest of the storage. If the Ferengi hadn't already stolen all the phasers, he could get one, and then the lights the Ferengi were carrying would show them to him and let him shoot them before they could use the lights to find and shoot him.

Of course, odds were that they had stolen all the phasers, but with the power off, he had no access to the transporter. The phasers in the armory were his only hope.

The door to engineering was closed. T'Laren could hear Yalit shouting orders. "…completely gut the transporter controls, so we can get the power back on and find them!"

Now she was glad Q had given her an extra phaser. She detached herself from the velcro, floating down toward the floor. Gently she kicked off the wall with her bare feet, so that even Ferengi hearing couldn't catch it, what with Yalit shouting and the closed door in the way. A few pushes later, she was halfway down the corridor. Sickbay's doors, by design, would open in the lack of power rather than shut. She swung into Sickbay and touched the ceiling with one velcro knee, holding herself in place, as she set one of her two phasers to overload. Then she leaned out the door and threw it down the hall at the door to engineering with all her strength, quickly ducking back into Sickbay, where its wall would protect her from the blast.

A violent explosion. Shouting. Yalit's voice. "They're here! Form a circle, fire outward!"

A clever idea. With the doors to engineering blasted open, T'Laren could see three Ferengi in a triangle, shining lanterns out into the darkness of the corridor, and firing phasers. But they were firing solely in the plane of the floor and the two meters above it, and their feet clanked on the floor with the repeated thudding of magnetic boots. They were slow, tethered down even more than gravity would hold them, and they were still not thinking in three dimensions. In the center of the triangle, spillover from the lantern showed the dim shape of a very tiny, naked Ferengi floating untethered to the floor. At least Yalit could handle zero gee; well, either that, or she was sticking to her beliefs about women being naked even when wearing magnetic boots would be helpful.

*Q. How many are there left? I see four in front of me.*

/breathing hard, exertion/anxiety near panic but focus/*The two chasing me. I think that's all.*

*Where are you?*

*Deck 4. Trying to get to the armory.*

*I can't get there quickly with no power.*

*Take engineering and get the power on. The bridge barely works but engineering has almost all the same controls, and you have computer voice access. Get the power on and you can do anything Yalit didn't physically disable.*

*If there are only four left… I want to stun them./i want to kill i want to break their bones but i don't want to want/If I have Yalit stunned, I can hold her hostage against the last two.*

/relief/*Yes. Yes, stun them./oh please so tired of killing people/mortal death is so disgusting and they're just like us but i'm killing them it's like killing a q when i was one it hurts i want to stop/*

She was surprised. Q had been so adamant that they had to kill, so cold and unconcerned with any moral issues. But the emotions she felt from him now were disgust, largely with himself, and overwhelming guilt. Her motivations for wanting not to kill came from Vulcan pacifism, logic, and her personal desire to not feel blood lust, to not enjoy committing murder. But Q's reaction seemed to be entirely emotional, and in fact he almost seemed ashamed of the intensity of his own guilt.

*All right. I'll use stun.* She adjusted her phaser.

The triangle was rotating slowly around Yalit, but staying in engineering. That was unfortunate. Had they spread out or come her way, she could just have waited until they got to sickbay and then ducked out and stunned them. Now she was going to have to go in there. Very slowly T'Laren eased her way under the door jamb, caught the velcro in the hallway and lay almost flat against the ceiling, inching forward bit by bit.

Their lanterns occasionally illuminated the air just under her, so obviously they had considered she might be floating high, but they didn't seem to consider the possibility that she was flat on the ceiling. T'Laren recalled briefings on the Ferengi after the Federation finally made visual contact with the then-mysterious race. They were understood to have purchased 90% of their technology, including the very concept of the warp drive. Perhaps the Ferengi had never had space travel in zero gee; perhaps they'd bought artificial gravity before even going to space. Q's idea of shutting down artificial gravity had really been very helpful.

Carefully, slowly, T'Laren took aim, waiting until all of them were specifically focused down. She pulled off one of her velcro mitts and flung it at the wall, a distance away from her, angled so it would fall into the plane where people would walk if there were gravity.

The mitt hit the wall with a faint chuff. Ferengi hearing picked it up instantly, the lights all turned on her mitt and the phasers all fired. And in that moment when they were all committed to looking away from her, she fired down at their heads. One. Two. Yalit looked up. Three. The last one fired wildly toward her, but missed. And that was four.

She kicked free of the velcro and shoved off at full speed into engineering, where the dim emergency lights were plenty for her to see by.

Immediately she could see what had happened to the power. Yalit had simply removed all the dilithium crystals. T'Laren retrieved a magnetic belt from one of the unconscious Ferengi and locked herself to the console so she could hook the crystals in.

It had been a controlled shutdown, not a short circuit that blew out the crystals, so it wasn't necessary to do a cold intermix to get the power on. The moment she had two-thirds of the crystals in, it came up on her own. She put in the rest of them quickly, figuring that if Q needed transporters they'd need maximum power capacity.

Then she used a control console to get life sign readings for the ship, and went cold. The one human reading and the two Ferengi readings on Deck 4 were on top of each other. T'Laren opened the link, and was immediately hit with overwhelming terror, exhaustion, despair and terrible pain.

They had Q.

Q ran.

It was more like leaping and flying short distances than running; he kept using bursts of oxygen to get him back onto the floor, or return him to a wall, or someplace he could kick off from so he could keep up his momentum. He was also breathing off the oxygen tank every other breath, which was slowing him down, but his chest had finally succumbed to the low oxygen density and burned with leaden pain every time he tried to breathe without it. There were storage rooms and maintenance closets all over the place, and if there were power he could hide in one of them, but he couldn't get the doors open under these circumstances.

The armory was halfway from the Jeffries tubes under the front of the ship to the airlock in the back. Q fumbled his way to it in the dark, getting lost and first undershooting, then overshooting, before he got it. The door was locked, of course, so he had to feel around for the exterior manual release, and it didn't work anyway. Then Q remembered that the armory had a second, hidden manual release, for safety. He had to feel around for that, too, and then put in a three digit code using a physical dial with a very tiny emergency light above it so he could barely make out the numbers.

He heard shouting down the corridor. They were here. Q yanked the door to the armory closet open, reached inside… and found nothing.

Of course. The Ferengi had, in fact, stolen all the phasers.

A moment or two of feeling around confirmed it. No weapons. He wondered if everything he had had in the storage rooms had been stolen too, and if that stuff had been on Profit Margin if it was, but he couldn't devote much time to it because the Ferengi would have him in line of sight if the lights were on. Their lanterns didn't reach this far, but they would when they got closer. He had to get out of here.

Leaving the empty armory's door open, he kicked off down the hall. The oxygen tank would be too loud, so he didn't use it, but the clank of his shipboots hitting the floor or wall as he kicked sounded horribly loud, and apparently the Ferengi could hear it because they kept shooting at where he had just been after he pushed off. He was using the oxy tank to breathe off of so he wouldn't audibly gasp… until the tank ran out. And then the thing wasn't worth anything to him, so he threw it toward the Ferengi in hopes that it would hit one of them, and kept going. He had to get to the other entrance to the Jeffries tube, near the airlock.

And then the lights came on.

"There he is!" one of them screamed from down the hall, well within phaser range, and Q swallowed and closed his eyes, because he was dead. They couldn't miss him at this range.

"Stop or we'll shoot!" one yelled.

"You'll shoot anyway," Q called back, unable to change his trajectory or stop even if he'd wanted to, since he hadn't reached a wall yet.

And then a burst of phaser fire hit him in the leg. Q screamed, pain more searing and intense than even the neurowhip sheeting through him. He tumbled, rolling, unable to control any of his motions through the mind-destroying pain, and the only thing he could think was that the next shot was going to be the last thing he ever felt.

Instead a weight tackled him, slamming him into the wall. Q cried out in pain again, and then he was being spun around and there were fists in his face, his stomach and his chest, repeatedly slamming him back against the bulkhead.

They were shouting at him. "You happy now? You killed my brothers, my uncles, my cousins, you killed my father! Are you happy now? Didn't do you any good, did it?"

He didn't beg. That was the one thing he clung to as he felt ribs crack and teeth loosen. He couldn't stop himself from crying out, from gasping and whimpering and occasionally screaming, but he managed not to beg. There would be absolutely no point to begging, because he really had killed their relatives in some fairly horrible ways, and begging for mercy would only whet their appetite for revenge. They were going to beat him to death no matter what he said, and the pain in his leg was so bad he couldn't focus on fighting back.

And then one of them said, "No, Frej. Stop hitting him. I've got an idea. He transported everyone on the bridge except for poor Antek into space. The airlocks are right down there. Why don't we throw him into space?"

"Yeah. Yeah, let's do that." The man punched him again in the face. "Not so high and mighty now, are you, hyuu-mon?"

The whole ship was spinning around him. The Ferengi took his arms and leapt, frog-marching him down the hallway, and his head kept hitting the ceiling on the up-bounce because he was taller than they were and they weren't bothering to put out their free hands to push off from the ceiling until after he'd already hit. Although the lights were on now, Q could barely see, shock and pain making his vision a tunnel hazed in gray. He hurt so much he was almost looking forward to being thrown out the airlock. Dying of vacuum was not pleasant, but maybe it would be better than living with his leg like this. He thought maybe he would lose the leg, and never walk freely again without prosthetics, and then he remembered that his captors were about to kill him, which made his concern rather irrelevant. Pain made him sob, but at least he wasn't begging.

And then gravity hit, and Q fell hard to the floor, and for a moment he blacked out from the pain. When he came back to himself he heard T'Laren's voice. "…and push them along the floor, so you cannot reach them."

"I—I can't move," one of the Ferengi gasped.

Q tried to get up and found that he was far, far too heavy. His neck didn't even have the strength to lift his head off the floor. When he turned it so he could see the Ferengi, he could see that they were in the same position, flat against the floor.

It was so hard to breathe. Between the pain, the thin air, and the incredible weight of his own body pressing on his lungs, Q thought he would probably black out again. But T'Laren had control of engineering. He had to stay conscious. She might need his help. Q forced himself to breathe deeply, struggling against the weight of his chest.

"Your mother's head is under my boot," T'Laren's voice came over the comm system. "I need only rest my full weight on that foot, in this gravity, and her skull will be crushed."

Some part of that was a bluff. Q knew that T'Laren wasn't enough stronger than the Ferengi to be standing freely without support in a gravity field that was crushing them, and him, against the floor. It was much more likely, given her penchant for altering the gravity in specific rooms to be more intense, that she was manipulating the gravity on this deck only. On the other hand, in normal gravity she could still crush Yalit's skull with a hard stomp.


"No, please! Leave her alone!"

"Then leave the phasers near Q, and crawl away from him. I will lower the gravity very slightly to facilitate this. Failure to do exactly as I say will cause your mother's death."

"How do we even know she's alive?" one asked indignantly.

"She is unconscious, as I have stunned her. If you would like to hear her voice to confirm that she lives, I could kick her until she awakes. I am sure that after several of her ribs snap she will recover enough from stun to be able to scream."


"No, don't hurt her!"

"Then do as I say. Now."

Pleading with T'Laren not to hurt their mother, the two Ferengi crawled, slowly, away from their phasers and away from Q, leaving the phasers near Q's sides.

"Q. Can you hear me?"

*Yes. But I can't breathe, so don't expect me to yell it out.*

"I am going to lower the gravity. Will you be able to sit up and confiscate the phasers?"

"Yes," he said weakly, barely able to force the word out against the weight, because what choice did he have? He wasn't actually in any shape to do this, but T'Laren couldn't keep control of engineering if she had to come down here to collect some phasers from prisoners. Surely he could stay conscious long enough to hold some phasers.

Then the gravity let up, and he was able to sit. He felt suddenly light-headed in the removal of the weight. The air was returning to Earth normal too, cooling and turning richer, easier to breathe. Q reached for the two phasers, carefully trying to avoid putting pressure on his burned leg.

"Both of you. Proceed to Storage Room 3 and enter it. If you hesitate I will kill Yalit."

The two Ferengi headed for the nearest storage room, presumably 3, and ran inside, babbling pleas not to hurt their mother. The storage room doors opened as they entered, and then clicked, locking.

"Q," T'Laren's voice said. "I'm lowering the gravity to lunar standard. Can you make it to sickbay on your own?"

Q tried, carefully, to get himself up. The pain in his ribs was bad, but bearable if he had to move. The moment he put any pressure at all on his burned leg, though, as he tried to get himself into a crawling position, the pain went from a red-hot agonized throbbing to a white flare that wiped out his consciousness for a moment, and when he came to himself he was lying on the floor again, on his side. "No," he gasped. "I can't get up at all."

"What happened? I know you're hurt, but not how."

"Phaser. To my left leg." He swallowed, trying not to sob. "It's… it's completely black, from just above my knee down to right above my ankle. I don't… I think I'll probably lose it."

"Well, don't panic. If it's necessary to give you a new leg, Federation doctors can probably give you a new one the way they gave you a new alimentary canal when you drank acid, by cloning and replacing the tissue. Just sit and try to remain as calm as you can. I'll be there to help you to sickbay in a few minutes, and we'll give you some painkillers."

"How can we do that? I deleted the replicator database! There's no more meds of any kind on the ship!" A sob did escape him then at the thought that he would have to endure this pain until they got to Miona Station, which on impulse only would be days, and with him too badly hurt to inspect the damaged warp nacelle, they didn't dare go to warp even if T'Laren got warp working again. Oh, and there wasn't any food either, so they would go hungry for days, too.

"Don't worry. The medical database is backed up on every medical tricorder. We will be able to give you medicine. Now I'm going offline so I can lock up these Ferengi and get to you. Try to stay calm until I get there."

He lay on his back, breathing deeply, trying not to cry, although small whimpers of pain kept escaping his lips. This actually felt a lot like the acid had, except that he wasn't dying of it so he had to remain alive and conscious to endure the pain. For a moment he almost wished the Ferengi had succeeded in spacing him. The men he'd killed might have died in horrifying ways, but none of them had suffered more than a minute or two of pain.

He heard motion and carefully levered himself back into a sitting position, gasping at the pain in his abdomen and chest from the beating he'd suffered. T'Laren was coming down the hallway, carrying three unconscious Ferengi, in the light lunar-type gravity. She had one slung over one shoulder and the other two tied together, carrying them by the magnetic cable she'd bound them with. When she reached Storage Room 2, across the hall from the room they'd locked the other Ferengi in, she opened the door, tossed them in, and locked it.

"Where's Yalit?" Q asked.

"I locked her in one of the crew quarters. I thought it best to keep her isolated."

"Good. Why not put them all in crew quarters? Don't we have anything in the storage rooms?"

"Apparently not any longer. They're empty." She reached him and knelt to inspect his leg. "That does look unpleasant. Can I help you get to Sickbay?"

"Is there any way you can get me those painkillers before you move me? Any time the leg even changes position, I nearly pass out."

"All right." She went over to Sickbay, and came back with a medical tricorder. "While I'm downloading the medical database to the replicator, I should scan you."

"Don't tell me if I'm going to lose the leg," Q said. "Just let me go to sleep and wake up without it."

She scanned him. "Well, the good news is that you may not have to lose the leg. They shot you on burn setting, not on kill, so most of the damage is to skin and outer layers of muscle. There are still nerves and blood vessels intact and reaching your foot."

"They'd used the phasers last to burn through the door to the bridge, so I suppose that makes sense."

"That, and it would be easier to take you alive on burn setting. They would only have killed you if they'd hit your head or heart, whereas a phaser on kill will kill if it hits anywhere on your torso or upper legs. And disabling you with pain rather than knocking you unconscious is consistent with the things they were saying about you in engineering."

"If they wanted to take me alive so bad, why'd they decide to throw me out the airlock?"

"Perhaps overwhelmed by rage? Perhaps they wanted you alive so they could kill you more slowly or personally." She stood up. "I'll go get you some medications. I can't actually treat your leg, but I can bandage and sterilize it and give you painkillers and healing accelerators."

"Painkillers first before you touch it, please."

She went to sickbay again and came back with medical supplies. The painkiller was such an intense relief, he almost passed out again just from no longer needing to struggle against pain. "Oh, thank you," he sighed. "That is infinitely better."

"Can you walk now? With my help?"

Again he tried to get up, but even with the painkiller, shards of agony shot through him when he tried to stand. "No," he said, gasping. "Sorry."

"All right. Hang onto my neck." She lifted him, one arm supporting his back and the other under his upper legs, almost forming a chair.

He put his arms around her to stabilize himself. "Oh, you're so butch," he said in an archly campy voice.

"You do realize I couldn't do this in Earth normal gravity."

"I thought a big strong Vulcan lass like you could sling skinny little humans around all day."

"Perhaps, but at two meters tall you are hardly a skinny little human. You still mass 75 kilos."

"Technically, I'm only 193 centimeters. I thought you people were supposed to be so precise."

She laid him carefully on a bed in Sickbay. "If I had been speaking to a Vulcan, no doubt I would have used greater precision."

"I'm smarter than a Vulcan."

"And thus you're quite intelligent enough to know that my point isn't affected by seven centimeters in either direction." She used a sonic shear to slice off his pants above the knee, exposing the damaged leg. Next she ran a sterilizer ray over the leg, quickly. Finally she took a long, wide rectangle of gray material covered on one side with thick goo, and wrapped it tightly around his leg, locking his knee in place. The gray color changed to match the exact color of the unburned flesh right above his knee.

"What is that?"

"It's a bandage with regenerative gel. As the burned skin and flesh splits open, the regenerative gel will get into the cracks and speed your healing. An actual doctor will probably use sonics to remove the damaged flesh and then rebandage you, but my goal is simply to keep the burn from killing the healthy tissue and causing gangrene before you can see a doctor."

"Well, I suppose that's better than gangrene. Can I walk on it like this?"

"No. I'll find your hoverchair. You remember, we packed it because you tired so easily when you first came aboard."

"The Ferengi probably stole it, too."

"The Ferengi most likely to have taken it was Yalit herself, so it is quite possibly in the captain's quarters now. I'll question her."

"What are we going to do with them?"

"Once you've got a hoverchair, you can come with me to engineering, and help me get warp back on line. Then we'll go to Miona Station, hire repair techs for the ship, buy more dilithium, download a replicator database, and drop off the Ferengi when we're ready to leave."

"Oh." A horrifying thought suddenly hit Q, and he sagged back against the medical bed. "Oh, no. We can't do that. We have to kill them. Or at least Yalit and the engineers."

"Why?" T'Laren frowned. "If this is about revenge—"

"No." He closed his eyes. "No, I don't – I don't want to kill anyone else. But Yalit knows far too much about transwarp." He opened his eyes and looked at her. "Quite aside from my entirely selfish reasons to not want to anger the Q Continuum, the Continuum is right about this. Someone inventing dynamic transwarp right now will play holy hell with the power balance of the Alpha Quadrant. I can't let her go with that knowledge."

"There's another way. We don't have to kill her, Q. We can erase her memories."

"She's not accessible to your telepathy."

"I'm well aware of that. It's a psychological technique. Mindwipes of specific traumatic events used to be done fairly often as a treatment for post-traumatic stress. The technique has fallen out of favor, but it's possible to use it to wipe out learned knowledge as well as experiential memories."

"Can you administer that? You're a counselor, not a psychiatrist."

"I was trained by Starfleet Intelligence. Yes. I can administer the technique. But once Yalit is under and suggestible and her mind is prepared for erasures, you will have to be the one to tell her what to forget. The way it works is that we use drugs, light patterns and a specific tone to induce a state where the subject will forget everything that is spoken to them. The PTSD survivors would usually tell the story of their experience, in detail, and the story would be recorded and played back to them when they were in the erasure state. In this case, you'll explain to her what you explained to her before, and that will cause her to forget it."

Q smiled maliciously. "Oh. Well, that's very helpful. I really didn't want to kill any more Ferengi, but… I could really enjoy erasing Yalit's memories."

"I'm not suggesting this so you can have revenge."

"No, of course not. It's the merciful thing to do. We can protect the galaxy from the knowledge she tortured out of me, and still spare her life. It's a great idea." His smile got bigger. "The fact that it's also a perfect revenge is just a bonus."

"We killed almost her entire family. Isn't that vengeance enough?"

"No." Q lost the smile. "That was war, T'Laren. I wouldn't have killed them all just to get revenge. If I'd known how it would make me feel to kill mortals now that I am one, I wouldn't have wanted to kill any of them for revenge. I did that, we did that, because we had to. And yes. Beaming people into space, or blasting them to bits with an overloading phaser… those are really ugly ways to kill people. But when you're outnumbered ten to one, you have no choice. You don't have the luxury of clean one-on-one battles. We couldn't have won any other way." He shook his head. "We'd have had to do it if she'd treated us perfectly well but still planned to kill or enslave us. It wasn't revenge. Whereas erasing everything she forced me to teach her… that will be fun."

"I think all of this is tragic, actually. She accomplished so much in her life, overcame so many obstacles… and then she threw it all away to commit a criminal act, and lost more than half of her children and grandchildren."

"More than three-fourths. Profit Margin had fifteen Ferengi on it before I blew it up."

"How did you do that with the transporter and my hair, anyway? I'd meant to ask you."

"I converted it to antimatter with the transporter, and then beamed it over there."

Her eyes went wide. "I didn't know that was possible."

"Neither did the folks on Starbase 56 until I pushed them into figuring out how to do it."

The hoverchair turned out to be in the captain's quarters, along with a sizable quantity of gold-pressed latinum, perhaps 20 bars of it. Q demanded enough stimulants to keep him up and awake long enough to mindwipe Yalit and fix the warp drive, and under the circumstances T'Laren couldn't refuse him; he was right that he was needed for these things. But she didn't like the look of his leg, and she would much prefer that he rest until they got to a doctor.

First they repaired the warp drive. Getting it back on was easy; Yalit had just uncoupled a safety, without which Ketaya would not go to warp. The damage to the nacelle was harder to deal with, but Q showed her how to reroute force field projectors in the hull to temporarily replace the damaged portion of the strut, so they would safely be able to warp long enough to get to a place they could get real repairs done, like the station up ahead.

Then they had to confront Yalit.

She was lying on the bed in her cell, her hand clenched around handfuls of shiny metal jewelry that some of the Ferengi guards T'Laren had seen had worn, sobbing. When T'Laren, and Q in the hoverchair, entered the room, she looked up, eyes red, wet and ringed with dark circles of sleeplessness.

"Come to kill me like you killed my boys?" she snarled through her tears.

T'Laren shook her head. "We don't kill unarmed prisoners. We will release you and your surviving family on Miona Station. But to do that we must remove your knowledge of transwarp. Q and I will perform a procedure on you to eliminate your memories of transwarp, and then we can release you."

"No." Yalit sat up and shook her head violently. "Kill me. I'm not gonna cooperate with you. You killed my boys… my poor little boys…"

"Oh, boo-hoo for your poor little boys," Q said harshly. "Your poor little boys who wanted to drug an innocent woman so they'd have more fun raping her? Those poor little boys?"

"They only wanted to fuck her!" Yalit snapped. "You beamed them into space!"

T'Laren drew a sharp breath. But Q didn't wait for her to speak on her own behalf. "Where they took less than a couple of minutes to die. What you planned to do to T'Laren, what you would have done if I'd never demanded that you help her or if I hadn't been able to help her myself, would have killed her, slowly and in agony over days, because you didn't know that she needed a mindmeld." He floated his chair forward, advancing on Yalit. "But that wouldn't have mattered. We weren't planning on escaping and killing you all just because of what you did to T'Laren and what you made her do to me. But you were going to kill us both, weren't you? Or at the very least, sell us off into captivity we would never escape from. It came down to us, or them."

"I never said I was going to do that! I told you we'd let your woman go!"

"Oh, don't lie to me, Yalit. Why would you have told me she was going to the Bolian homeworld when in fact she was going to Miona Station?" He threw his arms in the air, and then leaned forward in his chair. "But let's give you the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that, after you kidnapped me for supposedly trying to damage your scientific reputation, you were perfectly willing to return T'Laren and me to the Federation, because you were too much of a moron to realize that as soon as we told anyone that you had T'Laren drugged to facilitate raping her, your reputation would be permanently destroyed and you would be blackened as a criminal, slaver, trafficker and rapist. So which is it, Yalit? Were you going to kill us, or was I right about every unflattering thing I said about your intellect?"

"All right!" Yalit shouted. "Yes, I had a merchant lined up for your girlfriend who was going into Romulan space anyway, and the Roms pay a lot for captive Vulcans. And I had a buyer from the Ceuli lined up for you." She grinned viciously. "You were wrong, you know. I told the Ceuli what bids I'd gotten from the Roms and the Cardies for you, and they were more than happy to beat it."

Q rolled his eyes. "They're not that rich. If they could beat the Romulans' bid, it's probably because they were going to kill you and take their money back as soon as they had me."

"Maybe, maybe not. They were eager to pay. Fell all over themselves thanking me for catching you for them. You must have really pissed them off. What'd you do, blow up their planet?"

"Gave them shapechanging powers, actually. For which you can see they've been eternally grateful." Q made a dismissive gesture. "That's not the point anyway. You were willing to see me killed horribly because I insulted you. You were willing to not only let your own sons rape T'Laren, who never did anything to you, but you were willing to sell her into slavery, rape and forced impregnation, apparently for the high crimes of being female and my friend. You didn't have to kidnap us, you didn't have to commit a crime against us that the Federation would find unforgivable. You chose to do those things, and that's why your sons are dead. I may have been the weapon, Yalit, but you pulled the trigger."

"Come with us," T'Laren said coldly. "We will be at Miona Station in four hours. The mindwipe will take at least one."

Yalit shook her head. "No. You can kill me if you're gonna. I'm not doing anything to help you."

"That is unfortunate," T'Laren said. "You have five remaining male descendants on this ship. If you do not cooperate, I'll have to start killing them."

Yalit went pale. "Who's left?"

"I don't know their names," Q said. "It's the three goons you had with you in engineering and the two that shot me in the leg."

Her lips moved, as if reciting names under her breath. "You bitch," she finally breathed at T'Laren. "You absolute bitch."

T'Laren examined Yalit for a moment, controlling the urge to commit violence. She was a bitch? "Do you know the difference between Ferengi and Vulcan women?" she said finally.

"We're better in bed?" Yalit said snidely.

"As you have seen, Vulcans can be compelled to need a lover's body, or die. In nature, however, this is a burden men carry; women usually only endure it when bonded to a man. So, consider. Our men will literally die without the use of our bodies, and yet they have never enslaved us as yours did you. We have never been, as a class, property of men, never been treated as wombs without minds, never been forbidden education or in fact any profession. Do you know why?"

"Do I care?"

"Because we are not traitors to our own," T'Laren said relentlessly. "Because we do not sacrifice other women's bodies for the amusement of our men. Because we stand together." She loomed over Yalit, who shrank back on the bed. "In the days when we made war, Vulcan women might freely kill other women who were enemies of our tribe. But we did not let our men take them captive and rape them. We did not ally with our men to subjugate other women of our own tribe. And thus we were never slaves like you." Now she was bending over Yalit as the woman cringed. "Because you did what you did to me, you and your sisters are slaves. Because Ferengi women will betray other women to curry the favor of men, you will never be free. Every terrible thing that happened to you at the hands of your men is your fault for being a traitor, you and all your kind." She stepped back. "Tell me, Yalit, did your daughters have the opportunities in life you won for yourself? Did you even have daughters? Or did you abort them all?"

"It's none of your business!" Yalit said, panic in her voice.

"Every time I think of what your sons wanted to do to me, I long to take a knife and slice them open slowly. Q may be sickened by violence, but…" Very deliberately, very coldly, she smiled, knowing the effect a smile on a Vulcan had on most people. "The drugs you gave me have made me like it. Please, refuse my request. I will be sure to tell your sons that you knew the consequences I had promised to you for them, and you refused me anyway, as I gut them and bind them with their own innards and hang them from my shower head to drip their blood into my bathtub."

"No," Yalit whispered.

"Then you will cooperate with the mindwipe."


"Very well." She backed up another step. "Get up." Yalit didn't. "You will walk, or I will carry you."

Q winced. "Did you have to use that exact phrase?"

Yalit climbed slowly off the bed. "I'll walk," she said dully.

T'Laren marched Yalit in front of her all the way to sickbay. Behind her, Q made an expression of amazement. "Really, T'Laren. I had no idea you could be so vicious. Color me impressed."

She looked at him. "Don't be. You are a better person for flinching at murder as you do. I don't like having such violent desires, but until I am fully recovered from pon farr, this is who I am."

In sickbay, she made the preparations, strapping Yalit to a chair, administering the drug, strapping a headset with brain wave inducers to the woman's head and covering her eyes with it. And then she couldn't find the headphones.

"Q, I may not be able to do this until we get to Miona Station and I can download the full replicator database."

Q shook his head. "We can't go to Miona Station, T'Laren."

"We have to. We need to take on a replicator database, or we'll have nothing to eat but emergency rations."

"If we can download the database without physically touching the station, fine. But we're going to have to repair the transporter and transport the Ferengi, because we cannot dock."

"Why not?"

"Didn't you hear what Yalit said about the Ceuli?"

"That she planned to sell you to them, yes."

Q took a deep breath. "The Ceuli are shapechangers. They can turn into anything made of matter in a liquid or solid form. If we dock, they could impersonate someone to get aboard, they could get in through the air exchange vents, there are any number of ways and we can't protect ourselves. She already made arrangements with a Ceulan buyer, so the buyer probably already knows I'm coming in on a ship called Ketaya, and I can't change our ID beacon without looking like a smuggler. If we dock there, they will get aboard and they will kill me. So I want to fly by, drop off the Ferengi, and get away before the Ceuli aboard realize I'm not going to dock."

"Well, I had made arrangements for us to be met by Starfleet Security on Kyreer, and since Anderson is expecting us there we can arrange to have a doctor with access to your medical records waiting for us. But aren't we much too far from Kyreer? Even if we remained on the same heading when we were hijacked, we've been captive for a week. We should have been to Kyreer in three days. And most likely, we didn't stay on the same heading."

"Yes, but with a few bursts of transwarp I can get us back there in two, three days at most from here. If we have emergency rations, I say we do that."

"I thought transwarp would blow the crystals."

"No, we can safely run for ten minutes at a time, the way I have it configured now. We do ten on, half an hour off, and we'll cut our transit time to a third."

"I need headphones to finish the mindwipe on Yalit. We can't bring her to Kyreer."

"I have headphones in my room."

"Then why did you let me spend twenty minutes looking for them?"

"Because you only just told me now it was headphones you wanted!"

She did not sigh. "Can you get them for me?"

"I'm in a hoverchair, T'Laren."

"Yes, so you cannot be left alone with Yalit. If she were to get loose, she could actually overpower you in your weakened state."

Q did sigh. "Fine."

When Q was gone, T'Laren walked over to Yalit. "Are you still conscious?"

"I'm going to throw up," the woman mumbled.

"You might. This won't affect the procedure."

"You should kill me. I'm going to make you both pay for this."

"I do not kill helpless people for making insubstantial threats."

Q came back with the headphones. T'Laren hooked one end to the computer and the other end over Yalit's large ears, which they barely fit around, and then gave Q a microphone. "This is directional. You speak into it and it will transmit what you say to Yalit's ears, over the tone. Your headphones aren't large enough to block out room noise from Ferengi ears, so I'll bandage her head to seal the headphones in and block her ears, and leave the room to reduce the noise. Simply say something into the microphone, and Yalit will forget whatever you say. You must go into detail on concepts, though; saying 'transwarp' might cause her to forget the word transwarp, but the concepts will remain until you describe those."

She showed him how to activate and deactivate the tone and images that would put Yalit in the erasure state, and finished bandaging up Yalit's head.

"While I'm doing this, why don't you go pull up an engineering manual on a padd and fix the transporter? What I had you do to it before effectively breaks it for any purpose that's not a weapon."

"Very well. That's a good idea."

"And I'll probably have to do this to the three guys from engineering, too. I don't think they were smart enough to understand much of what I was teaching them, but I don't want to have to explain to the Continuum why me underestimating a Ferengi's brain led to war in the Alpha Quadrant."

"Yes, but after Yalit is done. I don't want them in contact with her in any way until we drop them off. They still outnumber us." T'Laren broke off the ending of the last bandage and fastened the edge. "I'm going to engineering. Try not to enjoy this too much."

"That's a hopeless task," Q said, sounding amused.

When she was gone, Q turned off the images and the tone, waited a moment until Yalit's slumped posture changed to a tenser, more upright one, and picked up the mike. "Testing, testing. Yalit? Can you hear me in there? Hellooo, little troll…"

"Just… get on with it," Yalit mumbled.

"Oh, I will. But I want you to know exactly what I'm going to do."

"I heard… her explaining. Know… how… it works."

"But there's something you don't know," he purred into the microphone. "T'Laren thinks I'm just going to take away transwarp. But after everything you've done to me, and her… I don't think that's nearly enough."

"What…" She sounded frightened. Good. Her fear delighted him.

"I'm going to take away math," he whispered into the mike.

"What… no!" Yalit started thrashing in her bonds. "No! You can't!"

"I can. When I'm done, you not only won't be a physicist anymore… you'll be innumerate. What will that do to your business acumen, I wonder?"


"Tell me, Yalit. When I said 'please', when you held a neurowhip over me, how much attention did you pay to it?"

And as she struggled, he flipped on the tone and images. Within seconds, she quieted, her jaw going slack and her head falling back against the chair.

Q began with transwarp. He described to Yalit, in detail, the principles he'd been forced to explain to her before. Then he described how regular warp drive worked. Then he recited the multiplication tables with factors 0 through 20, and the squares of 0 through 20, and the associative property, and the commutative property, and all of the division operations that were inverse to the times tables he'd already recited, and some axioms of geometry, and then all the addition tables for numbers 0 through 10 and the corresponding subtraction operations.

He turned off the images, but not the tone, leaving her to return to consciousness but effectively deaf to the outside world. "I'm done here, T'Laren," he said over the coms. "Take her back and get me the engineers."

T'Laren retrieved Yalit, who was dazed and stumbling, and came back with the three engineers, marching them at phaser point. She hooked all three of them up together by scanning Q's headphones into the replicator and then replicating two copies, so all three could be connected to the same program and Q wouldn't have to repeat himself. Two of the engineers were the two men who had held Q down in Yalit's office so she could beat him. Taking math from them, too, would take too long. But after he was done wiping out transwarp, Q unplugged the third engineer's headphones – this one hadn't actually done anything in particular to harm him, so he wasn't going to do more harm than he needed to – and whispered to the other two, "Your mother is Yalit. You love your mother. You respect your mother. You do everything she tells you to," before finally releasing them. He had no idea if that was going to work, but if it did… let Yalit deal with the poisonous misogyny of the Ferengi directed at her from men she thought she had under her control, men she actually cared about. That would be a good start on what she deserved for her willingness to let her sons rape a woman who'd done her no harm.

When they reached Miona Station, T'Laren forced the Ferengi at phaserpoint to get on the transporter platform. Yalit and four of them went willingly enough, but the last one balked when he saw Q at the controls. "I'm not getting on any transporter he's operating!"

"Oh, for the sake of all that's holy." Q rolled his eyes. "If I wanted to transport you into space, or turn you into antimatter, or transport your head off, I'd have done it already."

"No! I'd rather be shot!"

"As you wish," T'Laren said, and stunned him. As the four men and Yalit reacted with expressions of horror, she said, "He's stunned. Pick him up and put him on the platform with the rest of you, or I will change my phaser setting to 'disintegrate' and shoot him again."

With bad grace, two of the Ferengi picked up their brother and carried him to the platform. "I'm going to remember this," Yalit said, her face dark with helpless rage.

"You do that," Q said.

"I will make you pay for this."

"Attempting to make Q pay for slights against you is why your family now numbers five, not thirty-five," T'Laren said coldly. "You do not have enough descendants left to afford to come after him again."

"Good-bye, Yalit," Q snapped, and activated the transporter.

As soon as they were gone he looked at T'Laren. "Get to the secondary control center in engineering and warp us the hell out of here before Yalit finds her Ceulan buyer and tells them to go after us. I'll catch up with you in a few minutes and start nursing this sucker through transwarp bursts."

T'Laren nodded. Q's hoverchair didn't move as fast as she could run, and the damage to the bridge had thrown off automatic control, so they couldn't go to warp from inside the transporter room. She bolted for engineering.

When Q finally caught up, he looked awful, gray and tired. "Are you sure you're up for this, Q?" T'Laren asked. "You look unwell."

"My painkillers are wearing off. If you can get me some more… and one of those emergency ration things. I'm starving."

"We have had a very stressful day, and a very long one, with little food, and you're injured. I think you should sleep tonight, and we can use transwarp in the morning."

"I think the sooner we get to Kyreer the sooner I can have medical attention from a doctor who's not out to kill me, and the faster we get away from anywhere near the Ceulan homeworld, the more secure I'll feel. Get me painkillers and stimulants. And food."

"That's really not good for you. The painkillers and stimulants, at least; I'm sure the ration bars are an excellent idea."

"I know, but do you know what would be really, really bad for me? Having a shapechanger transport over here, eviscerate me and rip my heart out of my chest. That would be extremely bad for me." He sighed. "I'll do this maybe four, five hours, and then get some sleep the next time the meds wear off, all right?"

"All right." She wanted to reach out to him, to hold him, to show her appreciation for everything he'd done in the past week and her understanding of how hard it had been for him, especially everything that had happened today. But after what she'd done to him, she felt like she didn't dare touch him unless he explicitly invited her to, ever again.

Q smiled tiredly. "Cheer up, T'Laren. We're alive, we're free, we have the run of our ship again, no one's beating us up or poisoning us, and even emergency rations can't possibly be as bad as some of the stuff the Ferengi fed us. You and I single-handedly beat 35 Ferengi and escaped captivity. That's impressive, don't you think? Really, things could be much worse."

"Yes, of course. I'm just concerned for you."

"Well, go get me my meds and then there'll be much less need for concern." Q punched in a sequence on the engineering console. "Transwarp burst in three, two, one. Blast off."

The sound of the engine changed, but without viewscreens there were no other visible signs that they were moving faster than regular warp would allow. "Don't blow up the ship while I'm gone getting your medication."

He actually grinned. "We're footloose and fancy-free, heading for a planet where I can annoy people and they won't try to kill me or torture me for it. Why would I want to blow up the ship?"

"Of course, annoying people with impunity is a critical issue for you."

"Of course."

She headed for sickbay. He was holding together remarkably well, considering all they'd been through. But she didn't know if the connection between them would be as resilient as he himself was. They'd have to talk about what had happened. Later. After his leg was better, at least.

Maybe much later.

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